Walk for Wellness and Recovery drew 325 attendees at Johnson Park. / Robert Ward/Staff Photgrapher
“This is our fifth year for the walk, but the first time we combined with substance abuse,” said Carolyn Beauchamp, president of MHANJ. “Many suffer from both and they should be treated together. How it has worked in the past is if someone needs mental health help, but is abusing, they can’t be admitted to the hospital until they are clean. But for most, the reason they are abusing is because of the mental health issue. They self-medicate with drugs or alcohol because they feel so bad.”
Just this past year, the state merged both the Division of Substance Abuse and Division of Mental Health on the bureaucratic level, Beauchamp said. “They created the Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse,” she said. “Now that they did this, the community has to merge the treatment. We want people to be cross-trained in both substance abuse and mental illness therapies. Both should be treated together and we should be working together.”
“I see this walk as a symbolic stand and making it clear we are working together,” she added.
For 64 years, the MHANJ’s focus is advocacy. “Our job is to change things,” Beauchamp said. “We raise money at this walk to pay for the advocacy work we do.”
MHANJ offers a variety of services and resources for their “consumers,” a term used by those in the mental illness field. These include community advocates, family support services, self-help groups, education and training programs and workforce development. There is also a 24-hour/7-day a week helpline which provides mental health referral information and a peer line called the Peer Recovery WarmLine in which those seeking recovery for mental health issues can talk to another person in recovery.
“It helps to talk to people,” Beauchamp said. “We try to support them through the phone, support groups, meetings — we tell them about whatever is out there to help them. It is important that they not feel alone.”
While it is a big step for substance abuse and mental illness to be linked together, Beauchamp said that is just the first step as cross-training in education, treatment, therapy and awareness need to be put into place.
“We come from different perspectives in certain ways,” she said. “We have got to get it together.”
Beauchamp also said many more resources need to be implemented for those who need recovery.
“Right now, for 75 percent of the state, they have a wait time of six weeks before an initial appointment for treatment,” she said. “That is not acceptable.”
Constance Rizzo, of Garfield, knows all about the importance of the peer line from both a consumer and a peer perspective. “The WarmLine offers incredible support for people in various stages of recovery in various stages of life,” she said. “And I definitely believe that I am no longer ruled by my body, but by my spirit. I was in a place so dark and now I am in a place where I can support and encourage people.”
The top fundraiser for the walk, Rizzo is a firm believer in the cross-recovery process for people with both substance abuse and mental health issues. She knows that help can be provided.
“All my life, I have struggled with mental health issues — impulsive, compulsive, mood swings,” said Rizzo, 53, who now works full-time as a peer specialist for MHANJ and is working on her certification. “I used socially in my teens and 20s. It was in my 30s that I was in hell — hospitals, detox, rehab, jail. I am also an amputee survivor. In my recovery, I found my foundation — the need to help others recover. I have this incredible passion to help — for love, compassion and kindness. We offer hope.”
Rizzo knows mental illness can be genetic as well. Not the only member of her family to suffer, her late father and siblings experienced various forms of mental health issues and are in stages of recovery or are still struggling.
Rizzo’s daughter Francesca Bautista, 23, acknowledges and supports these family ties as she expresses pride in her mother’s recovery. “I think that once someone has an addiction; there is always that tendency to be addicted to something,” said Bautista, who is studying at Rutgers University to be a social worker for at-risk youth. “But as long as that addiction is a positive, it is a passion. Let her be addicted to recovery and her work.”
Under several tents, various organizations, including MHANJ, NCADD-NJ, Laurel House and Recovery Compliance Inc., spoke with and showed interested participants how they assist in the effort to lead those with mental illness to a path of recovery. A stepping stone along the way, Emily Grossman of The Dream Coaches LLC, is a life coach who helps consumers recover from mental health struggles.
“For instance, I help kids and adults recovering from mental illness as they make difficult transitions, like from school to work or high school to college,” she said. “I help to offer those who are struggling with mental health issues as well as those in recovery, hope.”
In recovery herself, Marlboro native Grossman, 34, said her own illness began as a college student. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she has been in recovery for 10 years, penning two books on the topic and gaining a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College, a master’s in education from Columbia University and completing the Consumer Connections Core Training Program to become a Community Mental Health Associate with MHANJ along the way.
“There is more acceptance and awareness about mental illness. I see that media is, at least, trying to cover issues where mental health is a factor in a more balanced way,” said Grossman, who works through MHANJ out of Richard Hall in Bridgewater, the Somerset County Community Mental Health Center as well as privately. “I’m a representative that people really can recover. It is really, really possible.”
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