In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, there has been much talk around the issue of gun violence and mental health. In early January, Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, met with Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on gun control legislation to request support for a legislative agenda that will dramatically increase access to mental health services in the United States, according to the NCBH website.
Although Rosenberg finds herself traveling a lot around the country, she knows her roots. Rosenberg lived in New City for 27 years and moved to Piermont about five years ago. This past Thursday, she came back to her home county to tour Jawonio Tech in New Hempstead and discussed the issue of mental health locally.
Rosenberg met with Jawonio CEO Jill Warner, senior Mental Health staff, program participants and staff. She then toured the PROS program in Jawonio’s Behavioral Health division.
“The people who have committed many of these horrific incidents, from Newtown to Aurora … are not have been captured by this (resolution),” said Rosenberg, referring to a letter sent out in late December by the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, which called for the ‘immediate and bold action by state and federal legislators to end gun violence in our schools and communities.’
“It’s far more likely for people with mental illnesses to be victims than perpetrators of crime. I think the focus of mental illness and what to do to ensure a safety net is really the way to go. I think a lot of the gun control can be knee-jerk reactions,” said Rosenberg. “I do think that what we do know is that this mother and son in Newtown had obviously had difficulties for years. The mom hung out at a neighborhood bar where everybody was very fond of her and she of them. I don’t think she really talked about her son and no one really asked about him.”
Rosenberg said that communication and education of mental health issues is the key to moving forward.
“The issue we have is the continued isolation of mental illnesses and their families. If we do nothing else, we need to create a dialogue where you’re more comfortable asking someone, ‘how is your son or daughter’ knowing that they have a mental illness.”
Discussing Mental Health in Rockland
Jawonio celebrated the one-year anniversary of its Personalized Recovery Oriented Services (PROS) program last year at Jawonio Tech. The program “assists individuals diagnosed with a mental illness to work towards greater independence and improved quality of life in the areas of everyday living, learning, working, socializing through recovery,” according to Jawonio’s website.
Joe Zweig, PROS program director, said that there is a peer advocacy committee that runs focus groups to get input from those in the program. Two who have received help from Jawonio, Scott and Jim, are now peer mentors in this committee and are looking to reach out to the community to educate the public about the facts on mental illnesses.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” said Zweig. “Jim is developing a community education piece in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy with the hope that it can be a springboard for constructive discussion.”
Scott, originally from Stony Point who now lives in Nanuet, and Jim, of Valley Cottage, came to Jawonio for help with mental health issues. However, through the programs, services and staff, they’ve grown mentally and emotionally and are now on the giving end rather than the receiving end.
Both went through training to join the Peer Advisory Board.
Scott came to Jawonio four years ago after going to the county programs, which “was not effective,” he said. He came to Jawonio for help for his recovery from depression and drug use.
At the county, “we were kind of warehoused and moved from room to room listening to the same thing everyday. When I found Jawonio, I found a group of people who cared about my situation and me. (Jawonio) gave me hope and showed me I was not my disease and I could rise above it … Jawonio basically saved my life.”
When he found out about the PROS program he saw it as an opportunity.
“It was a way to give back and help others in their recovery. It also helped me keep moving in the right direction. I found I was pretty good at it and enjoyed it.”
Scott added that running the PROS program has empowered him and boosted his self-esteem.
“It makes me feel like people want to see you succeed,” said Scott. “If I can help one person, that’s wonderful, but if I can start a dialogue and educate some people on the outside, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Jim said that he’s taken the Sandy Hook event personally because of the stigma that attaches to those with mental health illnesses.
“I’ve been through a tremendous amount of programs in 20 years and this PROS program is by far the best. I came here five months ago. I immediately was embraced by the staff. They have been hands-on … I feel loved here. They have so many resources..”
Before Jawonio, Jim had fallen upon several hardships, such as losing jobs due to his bi-polar disorder, became homeless and lost his family.
“Within five months, due to the resources through this program … this past week, I moved into my own apartment and now I have visitation with my children and it is baffling that it has happened in this short amount of time,” said Jim. “I give everyone here at this program so much credit … and is second to none.”
For Jim, he’s focused on educating the public because of “the stigma of the bi-polar disorder and the stigma that I may do something erratic to a client or maybe at the jobsite. I’ve been dealing with this for a very long time.”
Government officials “have made statements that directly correlate violence and the mental health community,” said Jim. “I don’t think it’s fair and they don’t have their facts straight … because of their stature, people take it as fact. We don’t have that voice. We want to reach out and have our own voice and as small as it may be, get out there in our area. Maybe (reach) out to Albany and maybe farther than that.”
“We’ve been trying a long time to de-stigmatize mental illnesses and these violent acts, whether it’s in a movie or (in real life),” he added. “You can’t just point a finger just because it sounds good at the time.”
Rosenberg echoed Jim’s thoughts, but added that some influential members of the public have come a long way, such as President Barack Obama.
“People want simple answers to complex problems,” said Rosenberg. “I think the reaction has been a bit more tempered. I think the president has gone out of his way and his administration to try to set a tone that they are not synonymous at all. They’re going to be rolling out some national dialogue in local cities in ten communities. (They’re going to try) to get a cross section of people who live in those cities to talk about mental illnesses and to try to get consensus on what people know and don’t know and should know. Along with the bad stuff, … there is also enough of a desire to do helpful things that you should have some optimism to this. You’re making a positive contribution to this dialogue.”
Jim added that during Obama’s state of the union speech, he was “pleasantly surprised and was expecting the opposite. I think the fact that he didn’t mention mental illness and gun violence was a big step,” he said. “We need to work on those who are falling through the cracks in the system and try to figure out how to catch those people … and get the help they need.”
“We’re also putting together an op-ed piece. It really resonates with a lot of people in the community,” said Scott.
After meeting with Scott and Jim, Rosenberg toured Jawonio’s PROS program facilities.
“(Scott and Jim) They’re giving hope to people with mental disorders. They’re helping them have a life, a successful, productive life in the community, which is what we want. We want neighbors who are successful and productive,” she said. “They are empowering people to recover. It’s inspirational.”