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Tackling Mental Health, From the Mayor’s Office



A new grant from Horizon provides Mental Health First Aid training to city and town leaders to create healthier communities. See how.

If someone is having a heart attack or almost drowning, applying CPR can save a life until a paramedic arrives.

But what happens when that person is having a mental health emergency? How can you provide support until a health care professional can be brought in?

The answer is Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training. It teaches everyday people the warning signs of mental health and substance use disorders as well as ways to offer initial help. And now, that training will be available to several city and town leaders to create healthier communities across New Jersey, thanks to the Mayors Wellness Campaign (MWC), a program of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute (“Quality Institute”) in partnership with the NJ State League of Municipalities.

The MWC is a statewide community health initiative that provides effective tools and strategies for mayors and community leaders to empower their residents to lead healthier lives. This year, the MWC is embarking on an effort to increase awareness of and reduce mental health stigma.

It starts by providing 60 mayors and their staff with MHFA training in the coming year. The training will also provide everyone with a mental health toolkit showcasing the resources available to community members, strategies to promote community education, and activities including how to run a citywide stigma-free campaign.

“We can only reduce stigma by increasing knowledge and understanding around mental health conditions and substance use disorders,” said Chris Barton, MSW, LCSW, Director of Integrated Systems of Care & Network Innovation at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. “The more people who take this training, the more we can raise awareness of these conditions and help people get the care they need, especially those who have trouble getting help themselves.”

Funding for this initiative is provided by Horizon through its philanthropic arm, The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey (The Foundation).

“The MWC is working to create a culture of health and wellness at the community level,” said Julie DeSimone, Program Officer at the Quality Institute. “We all know that physical and mental health are connected, so to create this culture in the broadest sense, we need to focus on mental health, too.”

Addressing a growing need for local resources

Municipal leaders agree with DeSimone. They’ve seen a mental health crisis continue to grow. From 2017 to 2018, 4.5 percent of adults, or 309,000 people, in New Jersey reported an unmet need for mental health treatment. In 21 focus groups the MWC held with mayors statewide, mental health was identified as a top need.

During the pandemic, this need has skyrocketed. About 37 percent of adults in New Jersey have reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Mayors’ offices have been fielding requests for mental health resources. Mayors have shared that their staffs need more education and support to be able to address this growing need.

“Being able to address mental health issues at the local level is so important, especially at a time when we know residents are struggling,” said Mayor Carolyn Broullon of Highlands Borough.

That’s where the MWC has stepped in on behalf of the 421 towns and cities it serves across the state.

“We believe we must always listen first and then respond to the needs of the communities we serve. We heard clearly that mental health support is greatly needed,” said Linda Schwimmer, President and CEO of the Quality Institute, a nonprofit organization working to improve the safety, quality and affordability of health care for everyone.

Mental Health First Aid training is an important step in addressing that need, Schwimmer said. This 8-hour course uses role-playing and simulations to teach mayors and their staffs the common risk factors and warning signs of specific types of mental illnesses. It also demonstrates how to offer help in a behavioral health crisis and how to connect people to the professional care and social support resources found in the MWC mental health toolkit. To date, more than 300,000 people from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have taken the course.

“We look forward to incorporating the new MWC mental health initiative into our existing work, and the opportunity to educate staff and volunteers on how to best support our community’s overall health and wellness,” Mayor Broullon said.

By giving local leaders these basic skills, the program increases awareness and enables these leaders to better support and educate their residents. “We believe local initiatives, such as the MWC MHFA training, are an integral part to improving community health,” DeSimone said.

With more mayors exposed to mental health education, it’s the hope that they will work to allocate more of their municipal budgets to prevention and treatment of mental health conditions and substance use disorders, said Horizon’s Barton. “This training can cascade into the communities to help more of those in need,” she added.

Building healthier communities together

The Foundation’s grant to the MWC marks another milestone in their ongoing relationship. Previously, The Foundation supported the MWC’s Conversation of Your Life (COYL) program, which helps residents learn about advance care planning and share their preferences for end-of-life care. (Horizon is also one of the Quality Institute’s 100+ members). More information and resources on COYL and advance care planning can be found here.

Schwimmer said she is grateful for Horizon's support, while Horizon is also thankful to have a partner committed to caring for all of New Jersey’s residents.

“Like all other states, New Jersey is experiencing a mental health crisis,” said Jonathan R. Pearson, Executive Director of The Foundation. “The Mayors Wellness Campaign is in a unique position to deliver meaningful change to every corner of our state, so we can emerge from the pandemic even stronger and healthier than before.”

With a focus on ensuring access to the highest quality care for mental health conditions and substance use disorders, Horizon has set up a new behavioral health website for its members. Here, they can find providers, do mental health self-checks, and find educational resources so they can achieve health and wellness for the mind and body.