President Peter Mercer is this year’s recipient of the West Bergen Mental Healthcare Distinguished Service Award for his work in establishing an internship program at Ramapo that allows around 100 students to work with the healthcare center every year.
"I feel very flattered," said Mercer. "I was a little surprised, but it’s gratifying any time you are honored by such a well-known public service agency such as West Bergen Mental Healthcare."
Mercer shares the honor with Kathleen M. Waldron, president of William Paterson University. The award will be presented to the pair at the West Bergen Mental Healthcare’s 36th annual brunch on Sunday, March 16 at Seasons in Washington Township.
Mercer has worked in conjunction with the West Bergen Mental Healthcare, located in Ridgewood, N.J., through an internship program offered through the College’s career services office, the Cahill Career Development Center.
"Probably over 100 students a year from Ramapo end up working with them during their studies," Mercer explained.
The relationship with West Bergen Mental Healthcare benefits Ramapo students, too, as many go on to work for them full time after graduation.
"[West Bergen Mental Healthcare] has 220 full-time employees and a number are Ramapo graduates," said Mercer. "The formal programs that we have, through our social work program in particular, mean that our students have direct work related experience through West Bergen Mental Health."
According to Mercer, future partnerships with West Bergen Mental Healthcare include a program that will be offered to students who are entering college. The College plans to offer an orientation that will involve Ramapo students working with high school students who participate in the West Bergen Mental Healthcare program during the summer before they enter college.
Mercer has been involved in hospital work in the past, serving on hospital boards and working as the chairman of a children’s hospital board. But it was in his youth that Mercer was made aware of the needs of mentally ill patients.
"When I was 19, I had a summer job as a psychiatric nursing assistant at a large psychiatric hospital in Canada, and that sort of sensitized me to the needs of the mental ill at an early age," he said. "I’m very aware of how important it is to treat mental illness the same way we treat physical illness and make sure those students have the full opportunity to reach their potential."
Mercer has applied this knowledge and experience to making sure that students at Ramapo with mental illnesses are fully accommodated.
"Within the last 10 years, we have been able to accommodate more students with mental illness and to remove the stigma that mental illness used to have, so the fact that we have a facility as West Bergen Mental Health means that our students who need help can receive it," said Mercer.
Mercer cited the Office of Specialize Services as one of the key efforts in bringing more opportunities to students afflicted with mental illness.
"The Office of Specialized Services is the unit on campus which really helps those students make the transition and helps retain them," he said. "They provide counseling and special support and in turn those students get the advantage of all the other support services we have on campus."