NJ organization helps thousands and thousands on limited budget  

NJ organization helps thousands and thousands on limited budget  

MERCERVILLE, NJ (Oct. 4, 2019) - A relatively little amount of money can sometimes go a long way in helping thousands and thousands of people in need. And that was certainly the case for a New Jersey organization that took on the effort to help a country on the other side of the world after it was hit with one of the most devastating natural disasters of all time almost 15 years ago.

The New Jersey Mental Health Institute, Inc. (NJMHI), based in Mercerville, NJ, has proven that with the proper strategic planning and oversight, you don't always have to be flush with cash to help those in need.

This story begins in the early morning hours of Dec. 26, 2004, with most residents here in New Jersey safely nestled in their beds. Christmas day had been a mild one, with temperatures in the state rising to the mid-50s, but it had been far from beach-going weather. Half a world away in Sri Lanka, though, it was already shaping up to be a beautiful day. With average December temperatures in the 80s, the popular tourist destination off the coast of India was full of holiday travelers and local residents alike enjoying the beaches for which it's known.

Debra L. Wentz, PhD, and the executive director of NJMHI and president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHAA), was happy to be among them, visiting for the wedding of dear friends. It was her third trip to the country, and she had easily fallen in love with the nature and lifestyle of her surroundings.

Things didn't go quite as planned, though, and she didn't make it to her final destination in Galle on the southern coast as early as hoped. Soon, she would learn, the delay may have saved her life.

That morning, an earthquake had struck off the coast of Indonesia. At 9.1 magnitude, it was the third largest earthquake on record since 1900. Earthquake damage was extensive but the tsunami it triggered, a series of giant, swift-moving waves, took the carnage even farther, hitting 14 countries in Southeast Asia and ultimately leading to the death or disappearance of more than 230,000 people, including dozens of United States citizens.

In Sri Lanka, more than 30,000 men, women, and children, perished from the wave. As she looked at the destruction around her, Dr. Wentz immediately thought of the anguish that was sure to come, in the form of simply getting supplies to the living, and the emotional and mental health impact this event would have on those left behind, not just in the immediate future, but for decades to come. While many tourists left as quickly as they could, returning home, shaken and in shock, she knew that she couldn't leave just yet.

"It was very traumatizing, but I felt I had to stay," she said. "Having survived I felt, that there was a reason for me to be there."

While mental health services are well-established in the United States, this is not true of Sri Lanka, said Venerable Ethkandawaka Saddhajeewa, DB, Min, MSW. "Although Sri Lanka is a country steeped in tradition, over the last three decades it has become increasingly globalized," Saddhajeewa explained. "This has resulted in a growing trend of extended families becoming nuclear families and a fracture of the networks of support previously in place."

In the past, everything from emotional to financial problems were resolved through "intervention of the village headman, high priest or other elders based on the severity and nature of the issue," he said, but with "decreased reliance on the extended family and village, we have seen an increase in the needs, concerns and best interests of the individuals?taking priority over that of the group."

Because a structured mental health support system was never needed before, that situation had left those in need feeling isolated.

With this knowledge in mind, Dr. Wentz identified three phases that needed to occur to ensure the safety of the residents of the country she had grown to love:

1. Immediate relief: Providing?medical supplies and care, food and shelter to survivors and those affected by the tsunami.
2. Creating a support system: Training of volunteers and professionals to direct and support those with lasting mental health issues from the tsunami, particularly in rural areas.
3. Ongoing support: Providing continued training to broaden relief to all Sri Lankans struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues, whether or not tsunami related.

To initiate phase one, Dr. Wentz went to work without delay. In the days following the tsunami, not only did she provide help wherever she could to aid workers, but she began to lay the groundwork for a long-term system by speaking with the Prime Minister's Office about mental health issues. Additionally, she appeared on national TV there to speak about mental health warning signs. Dr. Wentz also compiled an extensive list of the exact medications and supplies needed and sent it home to members of NJAMHAA's Pharmaceutical Advisory Council (now the Life Sciences and Innovation Council).

Next, she returned home and worked with the NJMHI Board to fundraise and with a team to create a cost-effective program that would ensure long-term help to as many people as possible. The Tsunami Mental Health Relief Project, supported by the Tsunami Mental Health Relief Fund, was born.

Fifteen years later,?the now Sri Lanka Mental Health Relief Project has helped over 207,500 people with an astoundingly low total budget of $30,000, which all came from personal donors and through NJMHI members and other New Jersey organizations.

"The people of New Jersey, and elsewhere, from where most of our much needed and greatly appreciated donations came, are unbelievably generous,"said Dr. Wentz. "New Jersey is such a diverse state, home to immigrants and children of immigrants and friends of immigrants. This is sometimes overlooked in favor of stereotypes, but it's true, and I think this diversity is why people are so open to helping those they don't know, both locally and all the way across the world in Sri Lanka."

"We are of the world and so world events always touch us in one way or another, "she added. "One thing that appeals to supporters of the Sri Lanka Mental Health Relief Project is that it's small investment, big impact,'" she said. Here is a small non-profit in New Jersey with minimal funding fighting for and succeeding to create mental health stability in a country reeling with high suicide rates, civil war, and lasting trauma from a natural disaster that has led to poverty, substance abuse, and other long-term issues.

Whether donors are able to give $5 or $500 or more, they know that their money will go to good use. Overall, with only a total budget of $30,000, the project has been able to?provide training?to professionals and volunteers in Sri Lanka, create brochures in three languages for distribution, rent facilities, buy supplies, hire translators, and provide travel expenses for trainers.

The experience has been emotional and exhilarating for Dr. Wentz, buoyed to know that they have been able to do so much with such a limited budget and make a big difference across the world in a country that most Americans really have no or little knowledge of.

Initially, working with the Neurosurgery Development Foundation, a non-governmental Sri Lankan charitable organization, the NJMHI team, which included a trauma treatment expert and cultural ambassador, trained 106 local counselors, medical professionals, teachers, corporate representatives, community and religious leaders, and volunteers in identifying people who are struggling with mental health and addiction issues. Training, which was provided in English, Sinhala, and Tamil, covered the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, as well as an assortment of mental illnesses and substance use disorders,and how to refer individuals for further help.

Several members of the?training, particularly those in the medical field, were then able to take their knowledge and lead their own programs.

The training program was forced to go on hiatus for several years when the country broke out in civil strife and became less safe for visitors, during which time the program switched focus and developed and distributed culturally-sensitive brochures to help individuals identify mental health issues in loved ones and neighbors. If their volunteers couldn't be on the ground, at least their message could.

Finally, last year, a new opportunity arose to continue Dr. Wentz's mission. A proposal, "Program for Community Leaders to Enhance their Capacity as Facilitators of Basic Mental Health Needs/Requirements" was received and accepted. A re-vamped version of the training focused on rural Sri Lanka?had found a new, long-term home in the Sri Lanka Centre for Development Facilitation (SLCDF), a non-governmental Sri Lankan charitable organization that is committed to addressing poverty and other related social and economic issues.

The Centre's Devika Rodrigo said that training offered this year provided participants with ways to succeed not only as professionals, but also at home as family members living in rural regions.

"The participants were from villages and at the same time they serve villagers," Rodrigo said. "They said these programs have enabled them to be more inclined to listen to various issues related to the lives of low-income women, especially those in the rural areas where they serve."

That life-changing curriculum, which?included three parts, was developed by Sister Janet?Nethisinghe,a counselor, psychotherapist, and former president of the Sri Lanka EMDR Association, in conjunction with professionals assembled by the Centre. Designed to address longer-term needs in the country, it includes an introduction to counseling, enhancing knowledge of social and health issues and mental illness in Sri Lanka, building awareness of community counseling, treating addictions, and more.

According to Sister Janet,?the feedback from these trainings was overwhelmingly positive. The sessions allowed participants to better understand those they were serving by providing insight into their own?selves and behavior, she said. They learned to manage anger, how to slow down decision making, to communicate problems with others, and to look at life in new ways. And then they brought that knowledge home with them to share with others

"There is much work still to be done," said Dr. Wentz. "There are no fast-track cures for the kind of devastation endured by Sri Lanka, and for that matter, in other countries such as Puerto Rico and Bermuda. It's never a quick fix. It takes time to heal, not just from the immediate needs, but in most cases, the long-term effects. Life does not simply move on for some of these people."

Added Inoka Barclay, NJMHI's Cultural Ambassador and Administrative Officer who attended all three sessions of the final project in Nov. 2018 and January and June 2019, "The collaborative efforts of NJMHI?and SLCDF are paving the way for healthier rural communities in Sri Lanka. It was humbling and rewarding to witness the heartfelt gratitude from the community leaders. The graduates are empowered and equipped to help the community at a basic level and with further training and assistance from NJHMI we can help eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness and help the public at a larger scale. It is a vital component of this pilot project that the community leaders stay in touch and get regular assistance from SLCDF. Almost every participant begged for the continuation of the program."

Dr. Wentz has been recognized for her work in the mental health field by numerous organizations, statewide and nationally, but she's never been in it for recognition. Her passion is good mental health for all. This is what drives her to create success stories. She would be doing the same thing whether recognized or not. From the moment the tsunami hit her beloved Sri Lanka, she knew she would never forget that day. And, of course, in a way, she's stuck living in the past. After all, her life's mission is to help those directly and indirectly affected by the tsunami move on with their lives, and so she must also re-face that moment every training she coordinates, in television interviews, every board meeting at which the project is discussed. But if that means helping others move forward, then it's more than worth it.

To learn more about this effort or to donate to the Sri Lanka Mental Health Relief Project, please visit https://tinyurl.com/y38ovqbu or contact the NJMHI at 1-609-838-5488 or email Dr. Wentz directly, atdwentz@njmhi.org.