Seventy-five years ago, Clifford Beers was released from the hospital after suffering from a mental illness and founded the New Jersey Mental Hygiene Association, aiming to improve treatment for mental illnesses in hospitals. Now known as the Mental Health Association In New Jersey (MHANJ), it is celebrating its 75th year of providing services for residents dealing with mental illness and substance abuse
“We’ve actually shifted to ‘behavioral health,’ but no one knows what that is,” MHANJ President and CEO Carolyn Beauchamp says, explaining that “behavioral health” describes the connection between mental health and behaviors such as substance abuse. “One of the things we’re trying is to make people see behavioral health as a public health issue. You can have a broken ankle; you can have depression; you can have depression because you have a broken ankle.”
Mike Leotis, a facilitating coordinator in Ocean County, began working for the MHANJ after being a client. “I was hospitalized in 2011, and they have a support group that I was welcomed into. It was a time in my life when I didn’t feel particularly good about myself, and they wanted me and welcomed me and I was in a place where I wasn’t going to be judged.”
The support group and other services helped Leotis get back to his job as a high school teacher, and a year later he returned to a support group to talk about his experience. “They asked me if I wanted to work for them, and I said ‘Yeah, more than ever,” Leotis said. Now, he’s working on recovery with clients and helping to train others to provide mental health support.
“It breaks down that wall,” he said. “Once I say ‘I’ve been where you’ve been,’ they know I understand. That’s what really got to me, the feeling that I wasn’t alone. It can really build a wonderful relationship where you say ‘We can work on this together.’ You can’t fake authenticity. I’m not just saying I know what they’re going through, I actually do.”
The MHANJ also supports for family members, teaching them how to engage with those who have an illness or substance abuse problem. Often, the affected person isn’t ready for the treatment their family wants for them. “Years ago, the rule was cut them off and get them out of the house,” Beauchamp said. “We don’t want to do that. So we talk about the options, because a lot don’t know.”
The organization’s diamond jubillee will be celebrated with a gala on Wednesday, Dec. 4, at the Park Savoy Estates in Florham Park, with proceeds going to support the group’s advocacy and services. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 973-571-4100, ext. 123.
Headquartered in Springfield, NJ, the Mental Health Association In New Jersey (MHANJ.org) also has location and affiliates in Atlantic, Hudson, Ocean, Essex, Monmouth, Morris and Passaic counties, and southwest New Jersey.