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Mental Health Champions: “The biggest contributor to stigma is a lack of education about the nature of mental illnesses.” with Joe Masciandaro

The biggest contributor to stigma is a lack of education about the nature of mental illnesses. Often, there are not physiological signs that explain the condition, which results in blaming the individual and/or their family for their problems. For many years, there was no effective treatment, which led to massive institutionalization of those with mental […]


The biggest contributor to stigma is a lack of education about the nature of mental illnesses. Often, there are not physiological signs that explain the condition, which results in blaming the individual and/or their family for their problems. For many years, there was no effective treatment, which led to massive institutionalization of those with mental illness. That has changed, but the social perception is still there. Media also plays a role in the perpetuation of stigma, as mental illness is commonly used as a scapegoat for acts of violence.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Joe Masciandaro, President and CEO of Care Plus NJ, Inc. (CarePlus), a pioneer in integrated primary, mental health and behavioral health care for adults and children, oversees and successfully leads the most comprehensive community mental health care system in northern New Jersey. For nearly 40 years, Joe has been deeply involved in the fields of mental health and substance abuse and has been an advocate for destigmatizing mental illness for nearly 50 years. Making it his personal mission to provide programs, services, advocacy and education to the community, today CarePlus offers the most comprehensive integrated treatment options through over 72 programs designed to meet the needs of the communities it serves. Joe’s leadership in comprehensive and collaborative care has also merited CarePlus as the first designated and accredited Behavioral Health Home in NJ, as well as one of the seven NJ agencies selected as a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic. Joe’s involvement in the mental health community expands beyond CarePlus to community and state levels, through his involvement with organizations such as the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies and the Paramus Rotary, as well as on a national level with membership in the National Council of Community Behavioral Healthcare and the Mental Health Corporations of America.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I worked a summer job at a State Hospital in New York City. During that time, my assignment was to go to people’s homes and bring them back to the hospital after they had eloped, or if they did not return from a weekend pass. Mental illness was very much seen as a character flaw back then and it was said to be the fault of the individual and/or the family, but I could not reconcile the pain and compassion that families demonstrated with the notion that they were at fault for these illnesses.

With detours along the way, I ended up working with young people addicted to heroin and soon after was managing a large alcohol rehabilitation center. The combination of these experiences gave me insight on treating mental illness, substance abuse, and co-occurring disorders. In 1977 I was given the opportunity to form a Community Mental Health Center, which evolved into the CarePlus of today. I haven’t found another job since.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

The biggest contributor to stigma is a lack of education about the nature of mental illnesses. Often, there are not physiological signs that explain the condition, which results in blaming the individual and/or their family for their problems. For many years, there was no effective treatment, which led to massive institutionalization of those with mental illness. That has changed, but the social perception is still there. Media also plays a role in the perpetuation of stigma, as mental illness is commonly used as a scapegoat for acts of violence.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

CarePlus was the first agency in the state of New Jersey to provide “Mental Health First Aid,” which educates the general public on signs and symptoms of mental illness, and how to connect someone to help. Shortly after implementing these trainings, our community took off with the “Stigma-Free Initiative.”

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

As an early provider of services during “deinstitutionalization”, our staff has witnessed the shifting landscape of mental health and the stigma associated with it. When connecting individuals with residential services within the community, we faced resistance and the “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) attitude of local residents.

The Stigma-Free Initiative was born out of recognizing that effective treatment requires community awareness, understanding and acceptance. Mary Ann Uzzi, who was a board member for our organization at the time, spearheaded the movement in Paramus, NJ. She talked with the mayor and formed a task force, then connected with the Bergen County Executive and Mental Health Administrator and continues to train and direct volunteers who want to get involved. The initiative quickly spread beyond Paramus into all of Bergen County, and has been picked up by communities throughout New Jersey and has even piqued international interest.

The key to all of this has been having conversations, encouraging friends and family to stay connected with their loved ones, and rallying around their mental illness the same way they would with physical illnesses. Additionally, individual stories of recovery are very powerful. Highlighting those successes and connecting peer groups and families with support makes a big difference.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Individuals can practice self-awareness and compassion. They can learn to recognize early signs and symptoms and talk with those who are experiencing unusual thoughts and moods. It’s also important to understand that a symptom of mental illness is anosognosia — or, lack of insight to the disease. This means that oftentimes, those who are suffering are not aware of or are in denial of their illness. Families need to learn to balance a supportive and accepting environment with tough love when needed.

On a societal level, there needs to be decriminalization of mental illness. Public education and comprehensive resources are essential to shift the culture and beliefs. The obvious need is for the government to provide adequate funding. There needs to be more awareness of policies and funding sources that are given with one hand and taken with the other. There is a tendency for attention to shift from one acute crisis to another, addressing things at the surface level but not effectively at depth. We see this with the opioid epidemic — it’s important that this issue is getting attention, but it should not be at the expense of those who are struggling with serious mental illness. That is what is happening though–robbing Peter to pay Paul.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

1. Managing Stress: Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it is kept in check. Having techniques to counteract stressors and chronic tensions brings a lot of benefit to the body and the mind.

2. Exercise: I enjoy cycling and cross-country skiing, and also use a rowing machine. These physical activities are my main tools for managing stress and physical tensions.

3. Nutrition: A balanced diet is important to overall wellness. The food we eat fuels the body and mind, so it’s best to be aware of the quality and get all of the necessary nutrients.

4. Moderation: In monitoring health and wellbeing, sometimes it can get a little too rigid. I think it’s good to be flexible and practice moderation in all things, even moderation.

5. Spirituality: Faith is very useful when it comes to wellbeing, and part of that has to do with understanding your place and your role in the world. It also helps to cultivate compassion, which is beneficial to yourself and others.

6. Social Connectedness: Being a part of something bigger than yourself contributes to overall wellness. For example, I am part of the Paramus Rotary, which gives me the opportunity to give back to the community. A lot of fulfillment comes from being connected.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

DJ Jaffe is an advocate for individuals with serious mental illness, and author of “Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill”. He espouses some controversial ideas, but his advocacy is compelling, and his passion is inspiring. Our organization has always emphasized the importance of organizing families, and actually formed the first National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter in New Jersey.

Even watching the news, there is plenty of inspiration to be a champion for this industry and these issues. To stay balanced and unbiased, I like to watch stories and read reports each day from various networks on either side of the political spectrum.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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