WESTFIELD, NJ – A newly formed task force of local officials and volunteers has been charged with identifying best practices for handling mental illness, reducing the stigma surrounding it and heightening awareness of resources available for treatment.

The 10-member Westfield Youth and Family Mental Health Commission to be directed by Mayor Shelley Brindle, Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan and Health Department Director Megan Avallone is seeking volunteers, Brindle announced this week.

“Many people in our community have been affected, directly or indirectly, by mental illness,” Brindle said in a statement. “It is time to bring all of our local resources together to make Westfield a model in providing comprehensive youth and family mental health support, intervention and prevention services.”

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Janet Sarkos, executive director of the Westfield-based crisis hotline Caring Contact, said that in its first six months of this year, the hotline, which takes serves people nationwide, has seen the number of calls triple when compared to last year.

A series of celebrity suicides reported over the summer, teen bullying and media influences, including the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” which centers around a teenager’s suicide, may have lead to the spike in calls, Sarkos said.

Public awareness, she said, could also play a role.

“People are learning of the resources that are there,” Sarkos said. “It’s amazing that this organization has been here for 43 years, and I didn’t know about it until I started with it 5 years ago.”

The local commission’s mission includes the following, Brindle stated.

  • Coordinate and align efforts among organizations that provide mental health services
  • Create awareness of community mental health resources
  • Break the stigma that exists around mental health
  • Identify best practices for support and crisis prevention measures and make recommendations accordingly
  • Establish additional mental health programs and support for Westfield families and youth as identified by the community

Brindle’s announcement seeking volunteers comes during National Mental Health Week and she hopes for the commission to have recommendations by May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.

The town is seeking applications for those who might volunteer for the commission, which is to be comprised of four residents, in addition to the representatives for each member of the commission’s steering committee. The town is looking to identify volunteers who have a strong personal interest, Brindle said.

The commission’s formation comes as Westfield’s school board revises a “pupil suicide prevention policy,” initially passed in 2002, which details the potential warning signs a student may commit suicide.

Among other revisions, the new policy adds to the signs self-injury and being targeted for harassment, intimidation, bullying or mistreatment by others.

The town is taking volunteer applications for the Westfield Youth and Family Mental Health Commission through a form on its website until Friday, Nov. 2.

Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh

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