That doesn't have to be the case, say Acting Gov. Richard Codey and doctors from around the country. Medical science has made incredible progress in helping to understand, cure and eliminate the causes of mental disorders. Michael Swerdlow, director of mental health services at St. Mary Community Mental Health Center, said Thursday that help is out there, but the hard part is taking the first step toward recovery.
"When someone has headaches, or throws out their back, they're not going to think twice about going to a doctor, but for many it's not like that when it comes to mental illness," said Swerdlow. "There's always been this stigma associated with mental health that keeps people from seeking out treatment."
What is mental illness?
According to Swerdlow, disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders are real illnesses that, if left untreated, can be as disabling and serious as cancer and heart disease in terms of premature death and lost productivity.
Manic-depressive (bipolar) illness, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and Alzheimer's disease are other common mental illnesses that affect millions of Americans.
However, the quality of life is tremendously improved when a mental disorder or mental health problem is diagnosed early and treated appropriately, he said. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) based in Washington, D.C., mental disorders are the leading cause of disability (lost years of productive life) in North America, Europe and, increasingly, in the world. By 2020, major depressive illness will be the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children, the report adds.
According to Swerdlow, symptoms of mental illness might include one or more of the following:
* Confused thinking
* Long-lasting sadness or irritability
* Extreme highs and lows in mood
* Excessive fear, worrying or anxiety
* Social withdrawal
* Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
* Strong feelings of anger
* Delusions or hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not really there)
* Increasing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
* Thoughts of suicide
* Denial of obvious problems
* Many unexplained physical problems
* Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
According to the NAMI, the best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments.
In Hoboken, the Community Mental Health Center (CMHC) is a good local resource for those who might need to seek help. The center's staff includes certified mental health specialists, crisis workers, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and substance abuse counselors that are trained to help individuals and families find the solutions to these problems that interfere with living a well-adjusted, happy, and productive life.
The center offers long and short-term care, gero-psychiatry for seniors with clinical depression, and outpatient emergency screenings and assessments.
According to Swerdlow, the Mental Health Center treats about 1,000 patients a year for a wide array of issues. "Hoboken is such a diverse community. We see young professionals, children, working families, seniors. We really see it all," Swerdlow said.
Also, St. Mary Hospital hosts postpartum support group the first and fourth Tuesday of the month in Assumption Hall from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., for new motherhood issues.
The issue of mental illness and its treatments has been in the news often lately. For acting Gov. Richard Codey, mental illness is an issue that has personally affected his own family. His wife Mary Jo Codey has battled postpartum depression in the past, which has, in part, inspired him to overhaul the state's mental-health system. On Codey's first day becoming acting governor, his first executive order was to establish an 11-member Mental Health Task Force that will examine issues ranging from housing to jobs to access to care for the mentally ill. The task force is charged with conducting a comprehensive review of New Jersey's mental health system. It will issue recommendations concerning legislative, regulatory and administrative changes that are needed to improve the delivery of and access to mental health services in New Jersey. The final report is due by March 31.
During Codey's State of the State address in January, the governor dedicated a large portion of his speech to the fight against mental illness.
"There are some who have said that mental health is my personal agenda," he said. "Let me make it clear. I couldn't be prouder of the dignity and courage my wife has shown through her struggles and her advocacy. But how we handle the challenges of mental illness will speak volumes about how we handle ourselves as human beings."
The governor's initiative starts with Codey, with a proposal for a $200 million trust fund to build and renovate safe, affordable housing for people struggling with mental illness and other disabilities.
Codey has also proposed helping to pay off up to $20,000 in student loans for college graduates who work for state, county or nonprofit mental-health or other social-service agencies.
Thirdly, he has called for free mental-health screenings for uninsured new mothers and an education campaign on postpartum depression.
"I think the governor is bringing much needed attention to the important issue of mental health," said Swerdlow. Next week the Reporter will investigate the symptoms and treatment for one particular mental health issue, postpartum depression. This is an important topic for the Hoboken community considering how many young parents there now are in the mile-square city.