This is Mental Health Awareness Month, dedicated to bringing light to mental issues that, for too long, have been cloaked in darkness.

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Debra Wentz, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies, said there has been recent advancement in pharmaceuticals, counseling, and the overall treatment of mental disorders.

Signs of possible mental illness would include the loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable to a person, or social withdrawal from friends, family and colleagues. There could be possible declines in performance at work or school.

"Someone could experience guilt, hopelessness or helplessness," said Wentz, "not wanting to get up in the morning with their loss of energy."

She said this month is a good time to focus on the fact that we are winning the battle against mental illness, but we haven't won the war yet.

"More people are talking about mental illness, and that erodes stigmas," Wentz said.

New Jersey remains the nation's "medicine chest," with its high percentage of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. Still, on a national level, statistics show that one in five Americans, almost 44 million people, will struggle with a mental disorder on a yearly basis -- yet only one in three of those pursues treatment.

Mental health disorders are also often linked to a greater suicide risk, a risk which seems to be growing here in the Garden State. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says New Jersey's suicide rate tops 8 percent, its highest level since the year 1999, and the CDC recently reported that the suicide rate among residents aged 35 to 64 in New Jersey rose by almost a third in the past decade.

Wentz said mental health issues have become much more normalized over the years, through reactions to man-made and natural disasters. She cites the 2001 terrorist attacks as one example.

"This dates back to 9/11, when people were traumatized, anxious, depressed," she said. "They lost jobs; there was an economic downturn. And it became more 'normal' to be depressed. Because some of these events have made it seem more mainstream, people have talked about the more serious mental illnesses as well."

Getting those issues "out of the closet," as Wentz puts it, is really positive. However, she said there is still a certain shame and stigma to having a mental illness or addiction, a stigma not present with other ailments like diabetes or heart conditions.

"We have a lot more progress to be made," she said.