The Burlington County Commissioners took action to assist those suffering mental illness or from substance use disorder receive the help they need by designating the county to be “stigma-free.”
Stigma is a problem with many health conditions but has been identified as being particularly troublesome with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. These conditions are often misunderstood and people suffering from them frequently report feeling shame or blame for their conditions. This kind of social stigma is a primary reason why many individuals fail to seek treatment.
To combat perceptions and boost awareness around those struggling with mental health and substance abuse, the Burlington County Commissioners voted Wednesday to approve a resolution declaring Burlington County to be a Stigma-Free County.
The resolution makes it clear that the County recognizes the importance of education and awareness, and that the Commissioners support local resources that are available to treat the diseases of mental illness and substance abuse disorders so residents will not suffer alone or feel hopeless.
Burlington County joins a few other counties in New Jersey that have approved similar resolutions.
“Conditions like depression, anxiety and substance abuse are illnesses and should be treated as such,” said Commissioner Director Felicia Hopson, the Board’s liaison to the Department of Human Services. “Our resolution makes that clear and says our County will support those suffering from these conditions by raising awareness about the available resources and opening discussions to make others feel comfortable coming forward with their illnesses.”
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 1 in 4 adults experience mental illness in a given year and 1 in 17 adults live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder. And while almost 21 million Americans suffer from at least one addiction, only 10% of those individuals receive treatment, according to estimates from the Addiction Center.
In addition to passing the resolution, the Commissioners have created a Stigma-Free Task Force to develop actions Burlington County and other local governments can consider to better engage and educate residents.
“By designating the County as Stigma-free, we are declaring that there can be no health without mental health and we will break down barriers our residents may face either before seeking treatment or in recovery,” said Commissioner Linda Hynes, who serves as a Board liaison to the Stigma-Free Task Force. “We want to create a culture where residents who suffer from mental illness or substance use disorder feel supported by their community and neighbors and feel free to seek treatment for a disease without fear of stigma.”
The Stigma-Free resolution and Task Force is one of several actions the Commissioners have taken to improve residents’ access to drug treatment and other critical services.
The County reopened the Post House treatment center in Pemberton Township in 2018 to provide services to patients struggling with substance abuse and other co-occurring disorders. On Wednesday, the Commissioners approved a contract extension with Maryville Inc. to continue to provide services there.
Last September, the Commissioners expanded addictions services in the county by launching a Recovery Center in the Burlington County Human Services Building in Westampton. The Center serves as a “one-stop” destination where individuals can obtain peer support and information about treatment programs, recovery support services and community resources. The Center also helps organize wellness activities and classes, and hosts recovery groups like Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous.
The County also launched a Hope One Mobile Outreach Unit that travels to various locations in the county to help link residents with recovery specialists and treatment facilities and to train people on how to administer overdose antidotes, known as Narcan. The unit is run by the Burlington County Sheriff’s Department, the Burlington County Human Services and the Burlington County Health Department, along with staff from Virtua, Maryville and the Deborah Heart and Lung Center.
“Our Board has promised to govern responsibly but with compassion and empathy for the struggles our residents face,” Hopson said. “Our Stigma-Free County resolution is an extension of that promise, and we remain committed to do everything we can to help our residents access treatment and the help they need.”