Hackettstown ‘Stigma-Free’ zone brings mental health into the light

By Jillian Risberg

Hackettstown residents: they’ve got your back. Since 2018, the ‘Stigma-Free’ Task Force has been breaking barriers and squashing the stigma to make sure those struggling with mental illness, substance abuse issues and more are not hopeless or alone. They are continually committed to an inclusive culture that welcomes everyone. 


“Those that are feeling embarrassment and the shame or the fear, they need to know that at least in this town, there are organizations (such as the one that we have) will give them an opportunity to be heard,” says Task Force Chairperson, Victor DeSousa.   

No-one has to suffer in silence. 

“This distress, hopelessness that these people feel, they need to know that there is help,” DeSousa says. “That is what we try to do, at the same time we are developing with the populations in the high schools and middle schools events that give these kids a sense of self worth and provide a roadmap for them not to fall into those traps.”


According to DeSousa, even nowadays when there is an overdose or suicide attempt, those closest to the affected person often do not feel comfortable to speak freely about the situation. 


“They are afraid people will reject them,” says the chair. “And that is what we are trying to fight against. The more these conversations become mainstream — the better we will be able to offer part of the solution.”

He says the idea is to bring those conversations out of the shadows. 

“This is no mystery; it’s something we need to tackle,” says the chair, adding that they are finding that the crisis has been compounded by the confinement of COVID 19. “People are living in a virtual world so the tendency for them to fall into a down-spiral of desperation and isolation is much greater.”  


At the end of 2019, after they became ‘Stigma-Free’ — 14 out of 22 Warren County towns adopted the status.

“That was significant and rewarding because that means we created some sort of impact,” DeSousa says. “This is how I felt when I started this: that I dove in a backyard swimming pool and when I came out of the water I found myself in the middle of an ocean.”


The chair says every time you have an objective and you conquer that horizon, another one opens up in front of you and it’s much broader and grows. 


Included in the conversation is mental health; substance abuse, which is a consequence and sexual assault.


“These are conversations that are happening as we speak,” he says. “But they are happening because of the stigma still attached to them behind the curtains in the back of the stage, nobody’s witnessing this, nobody’s participating in this unless in very small groups, people that are directly impacted by it.”

The Task Force first came to fruition after the chair saw a study on the prefrontal cortex not being fully developed in youth until the age of 25. 


“And the prefrontal cortex is what enables us to make sound decisions in life,” he says. “That was one of the main causes for the increase in the rates of teenage suicide. It really impacted me in the sense of how nobody talks about this.”

Once he started digging into real statistics, the chair found that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15-to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 


A serious wake-up call that we need to heed. Because whether we like it or not, DeSousa says, as a society we are all responsible for each other.


“That propelled me to call the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and ask them what’s being done. Their (former) chairperson also was a local resident here,” he says, adding that he asked her if there was a way they could start a non-profit or initiative to raise awareness.” 


That generated intel, calling the Warren County Mental Health Department and everybody they reached out to at the time. 


“We were all kindred spirits if you will, everybody was like ‘why haven’t we done this,’” DeSousa says. “They were really ready to jump, I think waiting for some kind of trigger that would initiate this.”


According to the chair, his enthusiasm became that trigger. 


None of them had met in person yet but they all came to the question of, ‘Is Hackettstown Stigma Free’ because stigma is the real issue here. 


“One of the reasons why this subject is not treated with the importance it deserves is because there’s a lot of stigma around it,” DeSousa says. “People that are suffering and the youngsters suffering from deep depression may start having thoughts of suicide ideation — they do not know where to find the help and don’t even want to seek the help because of the stigma.”


The group was trying to find out how to attain and what it meant to be a Stigma Free town.

“Morris County was all ‘Stigma-Free,’ some towns in Sussex County were trying to get it and Warren County was not, none of them,” says the chair. “Some towns had the identity from two or three years ago but there was too many politics and red tape involved. The mayors were not speaking the same language as the town council.” 


So they reached out to former Hackettstown Mayor Maria DiGiovanni.

“She also, to my surprise, immediately jumped on board,” he says. “We had dinner at the local restaurant, the four of us that started this and we all understood the importance of this concept.”


Currently, the Task Force is composed of DiGiovanni, Laura Richter/Warren County Mental Health Administration; Sgt. Darren Tynan/HTPD; Elizabeth Sartori/Atlantic Health; Dr. Frank Fowler/Lead Pastor of TUMC and Kerry Mullins/Centenary University, among others.

After less than a month since their dinner meeting, by resolution of the town council on September 27, 2018 Hackettstown became the first town in Warren County to officially achieve the Stigma Free status.

“It actually was a humbling experience,” says the chair. “After we did it, all the other towns were trying to look for an accelerator for this thing to take life. They started getting over red tape and getting the status — and saw that it was possible.”


DeSousa says he is more humbled than anything else to be at the forefront of such an inspiring movement.


“This is not an accomplishment of one person alone,” he says. “Without that official proclamation we would not have the legitimacy that we require. That was totally the will of the mayor, just to allow us to have the stage to spread this message.


When it comes to what it means to be ‘stigma-free,’ DeSousa says there is no elevator pitch. 

“We don’t think what we do is close to being enough but we are trying to do better and more each time,” says the chair. “Hopefully one conversation will generate into another.


“And we try to save as many as possible — either one, 10 or 100,” says DeSousa, adding that they are concerned about those they haven’t reached out to yet. “If we manage to influence somebody into changing their perspective on life and look for help, that makes it all worth it.”


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