WAYNE, NJ — Township leaders came together on Monday night to have a “conversation” about both mental health and substance abuse in Wayne. This annual community forum was the seventh for the township, but many felt it was the most important because of the negative impact we’ve all experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fear of the virus and its effects, worry for what it may do to our elderly relatives, facing the loss of someone close who may have died or came close, extended isolation and so much more has caused unprecedented growth in mental health disorders. Depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance and alcohol abuse has been increasing since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

“Many people have struggled during the pandemic and many people have sought out help,” said Mayor Chris Vergano at the beginning of the program. “But many more people out there need our help, especially our children.”

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Superintendent of Wayne Schools Dr. Mark Toback, who was a co-host of the event along with the Mayor told the audience that “a sense of community” was identified by the American Psychological Association “as important in helping with the pandemic recovery process.” He hoped that this forum was a step in the right direction.

Toback also mentioned Suzanne Koransky who worked for the Wayne Schools for more than 20 years as a School Nurse and Nursing Supervisor before she passed away from COVID about a year ago.

“Suzanne is with us here in spirit,” he said. “She was the driving force behind many drug and alcohol abuse prevention and education efforts in this community.”

The program featured several speakers and an online/virtual performance from the NJ Mental Health Players who entertained and educated about the stigma of mental health. They also provided some helpful tips on how to talk with your children who may be struggling.

“People think they know what mental health is, but they don’t,” said Lynette Sheard, Director of the NJ Mental Health Players. “I’m going to tell you what mental health is on a sixth-grade level. Here it is: It’s something that interrupts or disrupts your ability to do the four ‘L’s: Live, Love, Laugh and Learn.”

One of the many gems of advice Sheard gave was to act quickly to address mental health issues, rather than wait.

“When people first begin to experience symptoms such as loss of sleep, feeling tired for no reason, feeling low or anxious or hearing voices, they should act,” she said, and equated it to addressing a broken leg right away.

Emotional wellness allows you to accept how you are feeling. Once you accept your feelings, you can begin to understand why you are feeling that way and decide how you want to act in response to those feelings. Being emotionally well grants you the power to express feelings without any constraints. In turn, you will be able to enjoy emotional expression and be capable of forming supportive and interdependent relationships with others.

Rich Grosfelt, the Outreach Coordinator for the New Jersey DEA Division, told the audience that “we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem. We have to get out into the community, we have to speak to people and make people aware of what’s going on.”

He talked of the Prescription Drug/Opioid Crisis, Heroin and Fentanyl, Psychoactive Substances, which he called “drugs of concern” and today’s more powerful marijuana.

The DEA Agent gave this chilling statistic: Nearly 71,000 Americans died from a drug overdose in 2019. That is approximately 193 drug overdose deaths every day. The loss of 193 people a day is the equivalent of a commercial airline crashing and killing everyone on board every day of the year.

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During the last twelve months, nearly 81,000 people died of a drug overdose. This is the most on-record, and it shows how clearly the COVID pandemic has affected our society.

 

Wayne Police Chief Jack McNiff spoke briefly. Half of his over 25-year career in law enforcement was spent as a DARE Instructor or as a school resource officer at Anthony Wayne Middle School, so the subject of adolescent drug use is very important to him.

The Chief talked of how the Wayne Police Department does more than just enforce drug laws.

“When we respond to a house and there is a person who has overdosed, or there's a family altercation,” he explained. “If we feel that we can push people in the right direction, in terms of recovery and assistance, we will provide them with pamphlets and assistance so that they can look for that extra help because there is a very, very huge mental health aspect to this, and it needs to be addressed.”

The Executive Director for the Wayne Counseling and Family Services Center, Colleen McGrath-Baird came up to the podium to speak.

“I’d like to thank the Mayor and the Township who have offered emergency funding for people who have no ability to pay for mental health services,” she said. “You can just call the Counseling Center, and we will make sure that we get you the funding you need.”

As for teen use of marijuana, McGrath-Baird made an excellent point about brain development.

“Any postponement of use will allow youthful brains to mature and develop tools and social skills necessary to make healthy decisions,” she said.

A panel answered questions from the audience and so much valuable information was shared that it couldn’t possibly be covered in this brief article. If you would like to view the recording of the entire presentation on YouTube, click here. As of this writing, over 530 people have viewed this recording.

Medical professional, author and addiction specialist, Henry Balzani spoke about the unanswered health questions related to marujuana ACE's [adverse childhood experiences] and the importance of early intervention. 

The event was funded by the various Wayne educational unions representing teachers, secretaries, paraprofessionals and custodians. It was hosted by Mayor Chris Vergano and the Superintendent of Wayne Schools Dr. Mark Toback and New Jersey Sttate Senator Kristin Corrado was there in support of a healthy Wayne Township. 

The Wayne Education Association also provided $25 gift certificates to Taste of Tuscany for all the people who attended the program in person. 

Wayne Alliance team members helped set the agenda, provide resources and prepare the event, including: Karen Marron, Chairperson Jennifer Carr, Vice Chairperson and Volunteer Coordinator, Dolores McGuire along with the Wayne Valley and Wayne Hills SROs(School Resource Officers) Ray Caronia and Eugene Foster. The Coordinator for the Wayne Alliance Robbin Gulino, was essential to the success of the event.