April 7, 2009
It was an awkward moment for me. I joined my colleagues from the Jewish Community Foundation in my visit to Marsha Atkind as she sat for Shiva. I did not know what to say. Her son, Russell, a 30-year-old computer science teacher and jazz musician took his own life after a long struggle with depression. I tried to comfort her in the best way I knew possible, but there was no one statement that I could make that could quell my uneasiness in dealing with this horrible tragedy.
But Marsha did make the ultimate statement. She took this existential crisis and converted it into an opportunity to enlighten the public about the insidious effects of depression and its associated stigma. At the time of her son's death, Marsha was the Manager of Women's Philanthropic Initiatives at UJC and was the founding director of the Jewish Women's Foundation. She and her former husband, David Atkind, established the Russell Scott Atkind Memorial Fund of our Jewish Community Foundation to publicize the problems associated with depression and the fact that help is available.
As a result of Marsha's initiative, the "Got Blue" Collaborative was established, which includes the Jewish Family Service (JFS) of MetroWest, the Mental Health Association of Essex County, the UJC of MetroWest ABLE Committee, and the Governor's Council on Mental Health Stigma.
As Marsha envisioned, the "Got Blue" Collaborative's major task is to raise the awareness of those suffering mental illnesses such as depression, resulting, in many cases, in homelessness, unemployment, and isolation. Its work is to help overcome the stigma attached to it. Twenty million Americans suffer depression, including over two million teenagers. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers, after automobile crashes. Many families feel embarrassed to discuss mental illness affecting their loved ones, because, in some instances, it sheds a negative light on their child-rearing, or they may fear that public knowledge may stigmatize their child in the worlds of work, school, or social life. My wife, Gail, a member of the Collaborative, is a psychotherapist and has encountered this problem with friends or acquaintances who are reluctant to air their concerns openly. We have also attended too many funerals of suicide victims.
Individuals can visit the "Got Blue" initiative website, www.gotblue.org. It leads visitors to the websites of three organizations that are leading the effort to de-stigmatize mental illness: JFS, the Mental Health Association of Essex County, and the Governor's Council on Mental Health Stigma. Our own website, www.ujcnj.org, also provides a link. "Got Blue' will also publicize the availability of services through media, billboards, and public service announcements.
At the press conference launching this initiative earlier this week, Marsha movingly told the story of the loss of her son and how depression is a silent killer. Then, Senator Richard Codey movingly told the stories of his own family's struggles in dealing with mental illness, including his beloved Mary Jo, and how the mentally ill suffer abuse and stigma even in those institutions purportedly designed to help and service their needs. The "Got Blue" Collaborative will help the community overcome barriers for those seeking guidance on mental illness and depression.
Concurrent with these efforts, our Community Relations Council and planning staff, working with JFS, lobbied Congressional leaders on providing funding for a Homeless Prevention for the Mentally Ill project. Thanks to the leadership of Senators Lautenberg and Menendez, a grant of $190,000 was awarded to the Jewish Family Service to implement it. The timing with the "Got Blue" Collaborative effort was quite fortunate.
I have known Marsha Atkind for many years, initially through her volunteerism at the National Council of Jewish Women, Essex Section, later as its national president; board member of the New Jersey Jewish News and then president; a member of the Jewish Community Foundation staff; and now as Chief Executive of The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. Obviously, she has had an exemplary career. But through her actions in helping to make the "Got Blue" Collaborative happen, she is the ultimate Woman of Valor. She has transformed tragedy into a legacy that will help others cope before tragedy strikes.