Milo Turk stood in the middle of the warm room wearing a grey suit jacket and tie. Couches faced each other to form a square and other chairs bordered the room.
Each month, on the second Monday, the Atlantic and Cape May counties chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness meets at Absecon United Methodist Church. Turk, of Absecon, is a counselor who leads a group of people like himself who need mental health care.
The local chapter is one of several organizations in South Jersey committed to providing mental health services to people with illnesses and their family members. As the issue of improving mental health care gains attention nationwide, local advocates say much work needs to be done before the stigma is erased.
“People, years ago, used to say it’s not a casserole disease. When someone was in a mental hospital, there were no visitors,” said Gail Dembin, chapter president. “The acceptance of it, it’s gotten better over the last few years, but there’s still a lot of stigma.”
About 160,000 adults in New Jersey live with a serious mental illness, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Turk, 47, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and mood disorder symptoms, when he was 19.
“A lot of people don’t understand. They think a mental illness has to do with a character problem or bad upbringing,” Turk said. “But it’s a medical condition that takes place in the brain.”
Turk was attending what was then Richard Stockton College when he started having delusions of persecution and grandeur. He believed he was upsetting people in the entertainment industry, that he had done something to damage their careers.
Other common symptoms in schizophrenic disorders are hallucinations and referential thinking, or the belief that everyday conversations are specifically about you. Since the 1990s, Turk has managed his illness with antipsychotic and mood-stabilizer medications.
Having a lifelong mental illness makes him more qualified to help others who are struggling, he said.
“It’s something that I’ve lived with for quite a while now,” Turk said. “As I’ve gone on to be involved in the mental health field, I’m finding people who have the same symptoms and same situations I did.”
While consumers, family and friends can attend support groups such as ones offered through NAMI, county departments and organizations are working toward establishing more accessible services for people in South Jersey who need mental health care.
Amy Hassa, a peer advocate at Mental Health Association in Atlantic County, goes into the community for one-on-one sessions with people who have mental illnesses or disorders. While services today are more considerate of mental health consumers, Hassa said, there needs to be more done.
“When applying for Social Security or assistance, (officials) have become a lot savvier to disability that can exist in mental illness, but there’s a long way to go,” she said. “We need to make sure people are also receiving support from mental health professionals.”
Gov. Chris Christie’s fiscal 2016 New Jersey budget provides $2 million to open up 200 new community beds, 150 of them will be reserved for people being discharged from psychiatric hospitals.
Meanwhile, the stigma against mental illness is still very real, Hassa said. Misconceptions about disorders and why people develop them are still common, and there is a lack of early education about mental health. The most effective way to fight the stigma of mental illness has been educating people at an earlier age, she said.
Mental Health First Aid classes are a step in that direction, Hassa said. The county organization runs an eight-hour course to train people on how to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. The program started in Australia and has expanded globally.
“We need more people to understand and train for mental health care and first aid,” she said. “How many individuals do you interact with every day who might have a mental health problem or crisis?”
Compared with 30 years ago, the field of mental health care has come a long way, said Cape Counseling Services CEO Greg Speed. What used to be a small outpatient program in Cape May Court House now includes 260 nurses, physicians, psychiatrists and mental health professionals.
“In the last five, 10 years, there have been explosions of new medications, which is integral in helping people maintain healthy lifestyles, get back into the community and find jobs,” he said.
Speed said the focus on providing developmental housing for people coping with a mental illness or addiction must be sustained to decrease the number of emergency hospital stays.
Turk, who has worked with NAMI since 2004, speaks about his disorder to his peers, students and the public through the chapter’s program, In Our Own Voice — Living With Mental Illness. He plays a small part in the battle against mental illness stereotypes, but he has committed the rest of his life to it, he said.
“There might be some people out there that know about my mental illness through all my work to get rid of the stigma, “ Turk said, “but there are still people who don’t know me very well, who don’t know I have a master’s degree.
“They might look at me and say, ‘there’s something wrong with him, don’t bother him.’ Sometimes you have to just roll with the punches.”