Who would have thought that the YMCA and the Mental Health Association in New Jersey could find such synergy in grass roots efforts to improve behavioral health in our state? Here’s what happened when they put their heads and hearts together to address a critical need — helping New Jerseyans who are coping with mental illness and substance use issues.
First, a look at the problem…Mental health and substance use problems affect more than 60 million people in the U.S., yet the vast majority do not seek or get needed care. New Jersey statistics mirror the national norm, with only an estimated 39% of the people who experience these problems receiving treatment and/or counseling. Fears of being subjected to bias or stigma, the public’s lack of understanding and acceptance of these disorders, and the challenge of navigating the behavioral health system are often insurmountable barriers that stand in the way of treatment.
This is where the YMCAs come in…YMCAs have unique roles in their individual communities that enable them to interact with thousands of people of all ages every day, helping them to grow in spirit, mind and body. The opportunity to normalize conversations about mental health and substance use disorders and create positive social change through YMCAs is significant, as they are seen as trusted, welcoming institutions.
The New Jersey Alliance of YMCAs, representing the 35 YMCAs in the state, was one of the first key stakeholders to sign on to the Mental Health First Aid for New Jersey Project, which is run by the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ) and funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Mental Health First Aid is a public education program that teaches the risk factors and warning signs of mental illnesses, builds understanding of their impact, and gives participants skills that enable them to offer support and connect people with the resources and help they need. The Mental Health First Aid for New Jersey Project’s mission is to increase access to this important training across the state. In its first year and a half of existence, it has made significant strides by developing partnerships with major organizations like the YMCA.
“The YMCAs historic role in helping members improve their physical health is well known, but we are also aligned with the Mental Health Association in New Jersey in our shared belief that there really is no such thing as health and well-being without good mental health,” said Bill Lovett, Executive Director of the New Jersey Alliance of YMCAs. “We have a tremendous opportunity to change perspectives about mental illness and reduce stigma through the use of Mental Health First Aid in our YMCAs and the communities they serve. We are proud to work as a strategic partner with the Mental Health Association in New Jersey to accomplish this.”
Here’s a real example of how it works… Darcy Dobens, LSW, is Director of the Bayshore Family Success Center, a program of the Community YMCA funded by the Department of Children and Families, Division of Families and Community Partnerships. She is also a Mental Health First Aid instructor, and knows firsthand how important it is for staff members to be trained in the curriculum. “Recently, a woman came in with her two children and was obviously distraught about her ability to pay her rent, and fearful that she would be evicted. By using the techniques taught in MHFA, our staff was able to recognize that she was experiencing an emotional crisis that was contributing to her inability to maintain employment and function well in her other day-to-day activities. As a Family Success Center, we are often the first place people go for help. We can make a big difference by identifying a core problem, like depression or addiction, and then connecting people to the behavioral health services that they need.”
An exponential win/win…The YMCAs continued involvement in the Mental Health First Aid for New Jersey Project ensures that more and more YMCA staff members are trained in Mental Health First Aid and certified as instructors of the curriculum. This provides access to an increasing number of trained behavioral health advocates for the thousands of adults and children who use YMCA facilities every day. Here are just a few details about the partnership:
— The New Jersey Alliance of YMCAs and other YMCAs have participated as committed stakeholders to help shape the Mental Health First Aid for New Jersey Project and the entire training landscape in the state.
— Regional YMCA Mental Health First Aid Trainings during the summer of 2016 resulted in the certification of nearly 70 YMCA staff members from throughout the state.
— YMCAs in Madison, Basking Ridge, Montclair, Madison, Summit, Red Bank, Elizabeth, Fanwood-Scotch Plains, Westfield and Hopewell Valley have trained hundreds of people in Mental Health First Aid in the last two years. There are many stories from these YMCAs about the impact that Mental Health First Aid has had in the lives of instructors, First Aiders, YMCA members and communities.
“Our partnership with the YMCA helps us dramatically expand the reach of Mental Health First Aid throughout New Jersey. We tremendously value the Y’s commitment to this initiative and look forward to building on this important collaboration in the future,” said Robert Kley, Vice President and COO of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey.