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Making a 100-Mile March to Heighten Awareness of Mental Illness

One woman -- pulling a coffin to symbolize those lost to suicide and addiction -- is walking from Cape May to Trenton

parrot pulling coffin

Experts call it a hidden crisis: While at least one in every four New Jersey residents suffers from depression or another mental illness -- problems that also can affect physical health -- too many endure this condition alone, struggling to escape the historical stigma and get adequate, affordable treatment.

But Greta Parrott Schwartz has chosen to challenge that status quo.

On Monday the Seaville woman launched a one-woman, 100-mile, three-day revolution, setting out on foot from her Cape May County home to the State House in Trenton to call attention to the destruction caused by mental health and addiction issues. At least one lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Van Drew, (D-Cape May), was quick to take note and pledge his support.

To underscore her message, Schwartz has been dragging behind her a massive, homemade white coffin inscribed with the names of 70 friends and family members who lost their lives to suicide, addiction, or other effects of mental illness. She dubbed the quest her “Revolution for Mental Health Care” and launched a GoFundMe online campaign to benefit mental-health advocacy organizations that had raised more than half of her $10,000 goal by Tuesday evening.

“We are in a CRISIS in this country due to inadequate mental health care,” Schwartz wrote on the crowd-funding site before stepping off shortly after 6 a.m. on Memorial Day. “Mental illness is NO DIFFERENT than physical illness and should be treated as such by the insurance companies. In this crucial election year I am hoping to bring media attention to this issue and force the politicians to deal with this crisis. It is time to stop the stigma. It is time to stop the shame. It is time for a REVOLUTION!”

The 2008 federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act requires insurance companies to cover behavioral treatments at the same levels they fund physical medical care, but there has been an ongoing debate over what services specifically are considered eligible for reimbursement. The issue is further exacerbated by a severe shortage of mental-health and addiction providers, particularly for children and teens. As a result, experts believe as few as one in 10 youngsters diagnosed with a mental health condition receives appropriate care.

There is a growing awareness of the need to better integrate behavioral and physical care and a number of programs are helping to bridge the traditional mind-body care divide for some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents. Last summer the state also launched a “one-call” hotline (1-844-276-2777) for anyone seeking help with mental health or addiction issues; as of April the program had screened 42,000 callers, state officials have said.

But a report issued earlier this year by the Seton Hall Center for Health and Pharmaceutical Law and Policy found that regulatory and cultural barriers have made it hard to build a coordinated system. Efforts to bridge the gap have helped, the report found, but the state’s licensing process still encourages separate systems of care. A state-supported pilot project to connect pediatricians with psychiatrists who could consult on behavioral health questions has shown promising signs, but funding is scheduled to expire next spring.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies have linked mental disorders – depression in particular – with “the occurrence, successful treatment, and course of many chronic diseases including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and obesity.” Mental health issues also can lead to behaviors — like smoking, drinking alcohol, not getting enough sleep or exercise — that cause additional health risks.

CDC studies show that depression, the most common form of mental illness, affects more than 26 percent of adults in the United States. In four years, it is estimated that depression will be the second-leading cause of disability, after heart disease. Depression also plays a role in the more than 40,000 annual suicides in the United States.

Schwartz posted a video to Facebook shortly before she started on her path — along Routes 50 and 206 — through the heart of South Jersey and on toward the capital city, where she is set to arrive midday Wednesday. “I carry this in my heart — all the way,” she said in the video, touching the white coffin behind her marked with the names of mental health victims, “and any others who have suffered: this is for you.”

Schwartz’s journey has drawn attention from local media and prompted funding and letters of support from more than 125 people online. Representatives of Van Drew’s office will be on hand to meet her in Trenton when she arrives.

"I am so proud of the incredible effort that Greta is making to bring awareness to mental health issues facing residents in our state," Van Drew said. "It takes a great deal of courage and dedication to undertake this kind of challenge. She already has brought attention to this issue… and I know she will continue the effort to raise awareness and to bring about change in the weeks and months ahead."

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