The Stigma Free Zone News - June 2020

The Stigma Free Zone News - June 2020

We report on an initiative of volunteers, nonprofits, schools, libraries, hospitals, First Responders, and houses of worship working independently or with local government to make NJ free from the stigma of mental illness. Anyone can form a local SFZ Task Force, no permission required. Just pledge to "do something about mental illness."


By Cynthia Chazen with Nikki Chiarello

Fort Lee H.S. was recently chosen as the first NJ site for a pilot training of Teen Mental Health First Aid (TMHFA), after the Bergen County Division of Mental Health won a spot in the program sponsored by The National Council for Behavioral Health. It was also sponsored in conjunction with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation. Ken Rota, Superintendent of Fort Lee Schools and long-time Stigma-Free speaker and supporter, was reportedly excited to be chosen. Principal Lauren Glynn, Student Assistance Counselor David Cuozzo, Director of Guidance Lauren Carrubbba, and the entire school guidance team banded together along with administrators to undertake training the entire 10th grade class of 340 students.

Director Michele Hart Loughlin, and MHFA Training Coordinator Stephanie Hartman, both of The Bergen Division of Mental Health Services, led the training along with Nikki Chiarello, Director of Development at local mental health provider organization, CBH Care. "When [they] offered me a spot ... I was both honored and excited," said Nikki. Training began in February, and finished in March, getting in just under the wire before Covid-19 closed the schools.

"I feel so lucky to have taken this journey with the students and staff at Fort Lee HS, and what a journey it was," said Nikki. Her sincere enthusiasm for the program was palpable over the phone when she spoke recently to The SFZ News. "Initially, students saw us as outsiders. We weren’t part of their community and we were bringing some pretty difficult material their way. We were asking them to open up to strangers."

However, as training went on, Nikki said she witnessed students sharing "big truths" about themselves and their mental health. "These were students carrying many burdens, from anxiety about school, to having many responsibilities.... Some were concerned about not having anyone they could trust," Nikki reported. We, as educators, know our schools are full of trusted adults.

This student's statement uncovers lasting truisms: People have emotions, their emotions are not always fact-based, and you don't really know how people are really managing, unless you ask.

Apparently, we need to ask. Given lengthy current school closings, which represent a real loss of support and community for millions of kids, we need to be checking in now on NJ kid's mental health. Who else is feeling alone? Who will return to classes for Fall Semester having experienced trauma, violence, or grief? Who may have developed anxiety or depression that went undetected at home, for months? It is a worrisome situation, indeed.

Michaela, one of the students who completed the TMHFA training said, "People often speak about physical health, while mental health holds just as much importance, if not even more. The lessening of stigma around mental health begins with the initiatives schools take to educate about it. These initiatives are truly necessary and appreciated, as they will have a lasting impact."

TMHFA focused on challenges from depression to suicide. In each class, the teacher, plus someone from guidance, or a social worker, was present. Stephanie created and put up informational posters. Each class finished by making an action plan, and students left with school and community supports. "The administration ensured they were visible each day, thus sending the message that this was vital information," Nikki emphasized. In summary she said, "On the last day I was saddened to be leaving. It was a great experience and I feel honored that these amazing students allowed us into their lives... if only for a short time. TMHFA is an eye-opening program which focuses on recovery and resiliency, thus empowering the students. Our teens are ready to talk about it, the conversation is long overdue."

The SFZ News can email suggestions for local programs of student outreach.?

Contact us here.


NorthJersey.Com: How Does One of America's Wealthiest States Handle the Homeless in a Pandemic?

Stigma Free Somerset County: Break The Stigma Webinar

Bergen Family Services: Mental Health Minutes Videos

App.Com:Former Mansion in Arthur Brisbane Child Treatment Center in Wall Demolished After Fire

PoliceOne.Com: NJ Police Open 'Resiliency Room' to Promote Mental Health

Minding Your Mind: Teacher Toolkit on Student Mental Health


By Cynthia Chazen

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown have been tough on everybody's mental health, and we still have no clear resolution in sight. Hope is among the most valuable commodities in our lives, along with connection. A lack of either may bring people down, and affect even those who seem the "most together."

Is there someone in your world - a student, elderly parent, or a partner - who has you concerned for their mental health? Don't let an opportunity pass because you aren't sure of what to say, or you fear that bringing up someone's well-being, or the subject of suicide might cause a suicide. It has been well-proven that bringing up these subjects will not "plant a dangerous idea" in someone's head, and the outcome of such a conversation might be life-altering, or even life-saving.

When in doubt: Talk it out!

AFSP, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, has created helpful scripts for laypersons who need to broach delicate conversations. Don’t feel like you have to give advice, problem solve, or know all the answers. Just talking with someone as they try to navigate their distress can be very powerful. So, please, consider conducting a 'real convo" (mental health inquiry), if needed, with your kids, your students, unemployed adults, or isolated seniors, among others, if someone has you worried or wondering. Hit the button below to link to the scripts, plus more.

Visit "Have A Real Convo"

MYTH: Asking someone if they feel suicidal will only encourage suicide.

FACT: Talking about suicide creates an opportunity for communication. Once shared, fears are more likely to diminish. A simple inquiry about whether or not the person is intending to end their life can start a conversation, and lead them to professional help. Follow through by connecting immediately to a healthcare professional, if their answer is yes.

MYTH: People who talk about suicide never go through with it.

FACT: Talking about suicide may be a plea for help and can be a sign the person is far along in the progression towards an actual suicide attempt. Those at greatest risk will likely show other signs apart from talking about suicide (see warning signs, below). If you have concerns about a person who talks about suicide, encourage him/her to talk further and immediately help them to find appropriate medical assistance. Do not wait, treat the situation as an emergency.

MYTH: Suicide happens without warning.

FACT: Survivors of someone who died by suicide often say that the intention was hidden from them. It is more likely that the intention was just not recognized. Know the warning signs.


The recent suicide, or death by other means, of a friend or relative.

Previous suicide attempts.

Preoccupation with themes of death or expressing suicidal thoughts.

Depression, conduct disorder, or problems with adjustment such as substance abuse.

Giving away prized possessions/ making a will or other final arrangements.

Major changes in sleep patterns - too much or too little.

Sudden and extreme changes in eating habits/ losing or gaining weight.

Withdrawal from friends/ family or other major behavioral changes.

Dropping out/avoiding group activities.

Personality changes such as nervousness, outbursts of anger, impulsive or reckless behavior, or apathy about appearance or health.

Frequent irritability or unexplained crying. 

Lingering expressions of unworthiness or failure.

Lack of interest in the future.

A sudden lifting of spirits, when there have been other indicators, may point to a decision to end the pain of life through suicide.

MYTH: The only effective intervention for suicide comes from professionals with extensive experience.

FACT: All people can help by way of discovery, emotional support, and giving encouragement to seek help. Interventions rely heavily on family, friends, and co-workers providing a network of support.