To this day, we are still in the process of transforming state psychiatric hospitals from custodial to treatment-focused facilities based on wellness and recovery. Even recently, it has taken strong advocacy nationwide to have mental illnesses included in insurance coverages to foster equal treatment opportunities. In addition, culturally, public avenues too often highlight an inappropriate connection between violence and mental illness. This linkage seems to be titillating and helps foster a fear of those with mental illnesses, opening the door to scapegoating and misunderstanding.
I had the pleasure to interview Carolyn Beauchamp. As President of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ), Carolyn Beauchamp has been a leader in the public mental health field for over three decades. A graduate of Gettysburg College, Ms. Beauchamp received her M.S.S.W. from Columbia University School of Social Work and pursued three years of post-graduate training in family therapy at the Mid-Jersey Institute for Family Therapy. Her lifelong commitment to advocating for persons with mental illness has been the driving force in her professional life. The Mental Health Association in New Jersey is a statewide non-profit organization that strives for children and adults to achieve victory over mental illness and substance use disorders through advocacy, education, training and services.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
From the time I was in middle school I knew I wanted to be a therapist — to help people who were suffering from emotional distress. I have always been aware and interested in how others were feeling and was sensitive to when they felt uncomfortable or hurt. There was mental illness in my family, and I was aware of the importance of therapy in bringing relief.
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?
Mental illness has historically been considered separate from the field of medicine. Seen as a character flaw or possession by demons, treatment was not a remedy — distance from society in “madhouses” and other methods of containment were acceptable solutions. To this day, we are still in the process of transforming state psychiatric hospitals from custodial to treatment-focused facilities based on wellness and recovery. Even recently, it has taken strong advocacy nationwide to have mental illnesses included in insurance coverages to foster equal treatment opportunities. In addition, culturally, public avenues too often highlight an inappropriate connection between violence and mental illness. This linkage seems to be titillating and helps foster a fear of those with mental illnesses, opening the door to scapegoating and misunderstanding.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
MHANJ is the strongest provider and organizer of Mental Health First Aid in New Jersey (MHFA). This is an educational program that teaches individuals how to intervene when made aware of someone in emotional distress. In this way it’s similar to administering first aid for physical emergencies. Implementing role-playing and simulations, MHFA educates participants by demonstrating how to offer initial help in a mental health crisis and connecting individuals to the appropriate professional, peer, social and self-help care. This sort of empowerment and education reduces fear of those with mental illness and provides the opportunity for personal contact, which is one of the best methods of reducing erroneous beliefs surrounding mental illness. Organizations who utilize these trainings include police departments, state agencies, hospital staff, and individuals.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
In response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012, MHANJ led the FEMA Crisis Counseling Program, NJ Hope and Healing, across the state. Our experience at the ground level led to a realization that communities and organizations wanted to help people suffering with emotional problems related to the trauma of the hurricane as well as with the physical aftermath of the storm, but they didn’t have the skills they needed to provide assistance. Mental Health First Aid was established in response to this need as a new tool for educating and reducing stigma around mental illness. As part of the front-line crisis response team, we recognized this program was a natural fit and would allow us to reach and help the most vulnerable citizens impacted by the hurricane.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
All three categories need to recognize that mental illness is an illness like any other and needs to be treated as such. From the government’s perspective, this means there needs to be an array of treatments available to people and insurance should include mental illnesses in the same way it includes other medical conditions. As for individuals and society at large, there needs to be a deeper understanding and greater recognition that just like any physical disease, people with mental illnesses are suffering through no fault of their own. All they want is to be well and recover and we need to support them through that process.
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?
Staying Active — I love exercising, and I do so regularly. I take dance lessons with my husband, specializing in the tango.
Fostering Relationships — Strong interpersonal relationships are important to me. I work closely with staff and maintain friendships both at work and within my community. I’m also currently politically active.
Engaging in Advocacy — Developing new contacts and relationships is important to advocacy and also to keep me interested and excited about new developments and relationships.
Practicing Yoga — Bringing balance to life is crucial and finding and practicing ways to calm and relax is a constant challenge. I practice yoga as part of balancing my life.
Meditating — Pursuing a spiritual practice is important to me. I meditate every evening as part of my evening ritual.
Connecting with Nature — I love being in nature and birdwatch whenever there’s an opportunity. Hiking in the woods is also an important activity that helps me feel closer to the earth.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Surrounding myself with and interacting with those with serious mental illness has always provided the most powerful and meaningful inspiration for me. Ever since my first job in the field at Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, I learned then and continue to realize to this day that listening to those who are dealing with a serious illness teaches me the most. Many of MHANJ’s initiatives were developed based on information that came directly from those with lived experience.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!