Be The One to Make a Difference

May 17, 2019

Eleven years ago the community in which I live experienced a suicide contagion. Sadly we lost 11 young people during that contagion most of them young men who died by train.

Five years later Superstorm Sandy arrived on our shores.  It devastated our community, left many homes uninhabitable, and many families uprooted.

Then we, like the rest of the Jersey Shore, began to experience the scourge of opioid addiction. Several young people in our community died because of overdoses.

As part of a caring community response to this triple trauma, leaders in our community came together to try to provide needed assistance to hurting people.  Thanks to grants and outside funding, we were able to offer the Mental Health First Aid course to clergy, educators, police officers, concerned moms and dads, and any other adult who was interested.  When the grants ran out we still wanted to be able to offer the course so I went and took the training to become a Mental Health First Aid instructor.  In the last four years I have trained nearly 1,000 people from all walks of life how to recognize and appropriately respond to someone who is experiencing a mental health or substance use problem or crisis.  For the next three years I will be part of an effort to train over 2,000 first responders in Monmouth and Ocean county with those same skills.

Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour in-person training.  Part of the course is to teach you “what you might see” in terms of the signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use problems.  The other part of the course teaches you a 5-step action plan that will help you know “what you could do” to assist someone.  Mental Health First Aid won’t give you the ability to diagnose or treat someone’s mental health or substance problem… but it will help you have skills and resources to make a difference.  I always tell my students that at the end of the course they will be first aiders, not crusaders and that I’ll be giving them a certificate, not a cape.

If we are going to help our friends and loved ones who are struggling, we need to put more lifeboats in the water.  We need more people who can say, “I’ve noticed… I’m concerned… and I want to help you.”  We need people who see when someone is struggling, are willing to reach out a helping hand, and who know where to direct someone who needs help.

I’m not a mental health professional, a counselor, a doctor…. I’m a dad and a pastor with a heart for hurting people and a desire to make a difference.  I know that the skills I have learned, and taught, and used in my own life have helped me give a lifeline to friends and family members who were struggling.  They know that I care and that I am willing to hang in there for the long haul to help them.  The road to recovery can be long and bumpy, and we all need companions for the journey.  I’m a pretty simple guy, so simple sayings speak to me.  One I saw recently spoke volumes:  “When I becomes we than even Illness can become wellness.”

To find a Mental Health First Aid course near you visit or search Eventbrite.  If you are a first responder (paid or volunteer) military service member, veteran or family member of a veteran in Monmouth or Ocean County, New Jersey you can receive free training… just email me at


Reverend Joe Gratzel is Pastor of First Baptist Church of Manasquan and the father of 7 adult children.  Joe also works as a community consultant, outreach coordinator and mental health first aid trainer in cooperation with Preferred Behavioral Health, the Mental Health Association of Monmouth County, the Society for Prevention of Teen Suicide and the NJ Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The Ammon Foundation believes that when individuals are holistically and strategically supported to build purposeful lives, the likelihood of them maintaining their recovery substantially increases. We provide this support via our two core programs – Ammon Recovery Scholars Program and Ammon Empowerment Workshop Program. To find out more about our programs, or to apply for an educational scholarship, please click here.