Mental health panel discusses aftereffects of Sandy
GALLOWAY, N.J. - The stigma surrounding mental health issues is exacerbated in a massive trauma such as Sandy, Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman who has publicly acknowledged his own battles with depression and substance abuse, cautioned Friday.
"My heart is in making sure [my son] can grow up in a world that is loving, and caring, and supportive," the 45-year-old Brigantine resident told a gathering of mental health professionals. "These are times that are reminders that we are interdependent."
A crucial milestone is approaching, panelists said: the six-month mark after the Oct. 29 storm devastated wide swaths of New Jersey.
Families that had to respond to immediate crises of physical health, loss of possessions, and destroyed homes are no longer in crisis mode, they said, and are now grappling with the mental burden.
"There's been so much focus on the destruction from an economic point of view," said Kathleen A. Enerlich, who helped organize the discussion at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. "But there's more to it than just that."
Enerlich's organization, PerformCare New Jersey, acts as an access point for children and young adults seeking mental health services.
There was a "huge decrease in calls" just after Sandy struck, Enerlich said in an interview, as "families were taking care of business."
Now that the immediate crisis has passed, she said, call volume has risen to pre-Sandy levels - with a twist.
"It's almost like the majority of people calling us are impacted" by Sandy, Enerlich said.
Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island who recently settled at the Jersey Shore, extrapolated from the post-Sandy trauma.
A major component of the problem, he said, is the stigma associated with being perceived as "nuts" or "psycho."
"I'm an addict, I'm an alcoholic. I mean, I have real troubles. But the thing is, I'm a Kennedy. I'm a congressman. You know what, that gives me power!" he said. "So I don't feel totally diminished because I'm also an alcoholic and addict. . . .
"Most people who don't have the Kennedy name and the connections, if they're an addict or an alcoholic or depressed, they have no kind of compensation. Because what we do is, we put people down with mental health problems," he said. "As if it's their fault that they have a mental health issue. And that's the problem here."
After delivering the keynote address at Friday's panel - "Superstorm Sandy: The Emotional Aftermath" - he joined leaders of five state agencies and nonprofit groups for a discussion.
The day's mission was to examine the mental health aftereffects of a traumatic event like Sandy.
Kennedy hopes his own story, including battles with substance abuse, bipolar conditions, and depression, will effect change in the area of mental health by normalizing it.
Mental health issues are often so stigmatized that people don't recognize they need help, Kennedy said. And if they do seek help, he added, they're often shuttled from one service to the next.
"The elephant in this room that no one wants to talk about is: Follow the money," Kennedy said. "It's scattered. There's no 'everything under one roof.' "
The decentralized system puts up unnecessary obstacles to health, said Zack Rosenburg, cofounder of the St. Bernard Project, created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Instead of "one-stop shopping," Rosenburg said, people are met by outreach from one group, then referred to another group for evaluation. People then drop out of the process, not seeing a coherent path for seeking help.
The panelists spoke in broad terms about the need for stronger mental health services, describing the post-Sandy period as a particularly powerful example of need.
"People are overwhelmed with what is ahead of them," said Marlene Laó-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities of Trenton. "They just can't cope."
Anxiety and depression are the two most prevalent effects of Sandy, said Debra L. Wentz, CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies Inc.
Friday's panel came up with no quick solutions. There are no easy fixes, panelists noted.
Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @elaijuh.