Clifton firefighters wear green to fight mental health stigma

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CLIFTON – City firefighters wore lime green T-shirts this week to help take the stigma out of mental health.

Firefighters and City students joined county health officials in a week-long effort to raise funds and mental health awareness.

Passers-by did a double take this week as they walked by Fire Station 3 on Mahar Avenue. The on-duty firefighters appeared to be glowing in lime green.

The bright-colored shirts represent wellness as well as the dollars donated by FMBA Local 21 to fund community training offered by the Mental Health Association in Passaic County (MHAPC).

Clifton Deputy Fire Chief Michael Allora, a certified Mental Health First Aid instructor, teaches firefighters around New Jersey and across the country. He aims to create a nationwide fire service initiative to train first responders to recognize residents or colleagues experiencing conditions such as depression, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Since he received certification in 2015, Allora was able to talk an intoxicated man out of suicide and into a treatment center.

“When I got on scene I noticed right away that the police officers were not trained for that incident and it was heading down the wrong path,” he recalled.

Shortly after Allora assisted a fellow firefighter privately grappling with PTSD.

“He had experienced a particularly bad call and reached out because he heard I was an instructor,” Allora said. “He was afraid to admit to people he knew that he was having difficulty. After two days talking to him, he finally understood that asking for help was not a sign of weakness but instead showed true leadership.”

Twice this year Allora spoke before Congressional committees in Washington D.C. in support of the Mental Health First Aid Act.

At the urging of county health staff director Joanne Green, the deputy chief rolled out the training course to all 139 members of the City’s fire personnel, making it the first department to do so in the state. With that, the Clifton Stigma Free Task Force was formed.

Rebekah Leon, MHAPC associate executive director, said the movement originated in Hoboken when its community discerned many locals in need of social support services were withdrawing and suffering in silence.

“It’s very satisfying when we’re out in the community to see that people get it,” Leon said. “It’s OK to talk about mental health because everyone has a friend, family member or colleague going through it, often alone.”

Thrilled with the fire department’s involvement, the MHAPC on Clifton Avenue, was taken aback this week by how the City’s schools embraced the idea.

Peter Salzano, supervisor of the district’s 32 counselors, said students in grades 4, 7 and 9 will complete three lessons with a pre-test and final exam to illustrate what they learned. In addition to debunking mental illness myths, students will learn symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and “develop empathy,” Salzano said.

“Nobody wants to talk about the elephant in the room but the reality is that one in every four houses has an elephant living with them,” Salzano. “This week lets kids know it is alright to talk about it, even if it’s you who needs help.”

The Clifton City Council officially became a Stigma Free municipality earlier this year. The Board of Chosen Freeholders followed suit, designating Passaic County a mental health safe zone shortly thereafter.

Email: Gicas@northjersey.com

 

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