FAIR LAWN, N.J. — As thousands hurl accusations of mental illness at the shooter who on Wednesday killed 14 people at a Southern California developmental services center, one Fair Lawn mom looks to strip the stigma.
Fair Lawn Sitgma-Free Task Force Co-Chair Tammy Smith maintains that having a mental illness does not make an individual more prone to crime or violence.
In fact, it's often the other way around, she said.
Most people that have a mental illness are the victims of a crimes — not perpetrators.
Smith, who once suffered from mental illness herself, will participate in a "Stigma-Free" symposium sponsored by Bergen County's freeholders on Wed., Dec. 9 at The Fiesta in Wood-Ridge.
The Bergen County Stigma-Free Initiative is a county-wide program that aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. It began after Mary Ann Uzzi approached Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera in Spring 2013.
Uzzi — now the organization's chairperson — proposed creating a mental health awareness task force, which was launched that July with help from Care Plus NJ. Fair Lawn adopted a similar program in April 2014 — just before Bergen County declared itself stigma-free.
It's been more than a five years since Smith has had symptoms of a mental illness. She's still hesitant to disclose her history with people in fear of jeopardizing her social circle or future job opportunities.
"That's what stigma is," she said. "The hope is that one day people will talk about mental illnesses like they talk about having the flu."
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