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Government News
Firsthand Experience Spurs Codeys' Fight to End Stigma
Psychiatric News
Volume 40 Number 10 page 21-21

Here's what New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard Codey (D) tells psychiatrists who want to stop the erosion of support for mental health services:

"Pick up the phone, and call your state legislators," urged Codey, who is also president of the New Jersey Senate. "They respond to that kind of concern. You'd be surprised about how few people actually call."

In a telephone interview with Psychiatric News, he spoke about the stigma of mental illness and its impact on legislative priorities and his long involvement with mental health issues.

Codey said that 1 in 5 families in New Jersey is affected by mental illness. Yet, because few people speak openly about the disorders, legislators do not take them as seriously as they do more commonly discussed physical ailments.

"They don't realize that a large number of their constituents have mental illness because people are ashamed to talk about it," he said.

Codey and his wife, Mary Jo, have been candid about their own mental health struggles and concerns for more than a decade.

In 1993 Mary Jo told a reporter for the Star-Ledger about her earlier experience with postpartum depression. She described her fantasies of killing her first child, Kevin, by drowning him or smothering him in his crib.

Fortunately, her doctor took her feelings seriously and hospitalized her. Since then, Codey has received various kinds of treatment, including electroconvulsive therapy, for depression.

She stepped up her battle against stigma when her husband was about to become acting governor.

Codey told a reporter for an article published in the November 7, 2004, Sunday Star-Ledger, "I am using my position. I have to get this off my chest. I don't like the stigma. I don't like the way we have to feel ashamed."

She asked, "What about people who don't have money? Where do they go? How do people treat them?"

Acting Gov. Codey said that his concern about mental illness goes back to an experience as a teenager. His father operated a mortuary business, and one of Codey's tasks was to pick up bodies from Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.

On one of those occasions he talked to a patient who recounted tales of abuse at the hospital that horrified the young man.

"Those stories always stayed with me," said Codey. "When I became chair of the Senate's Committee on Health, we toured the state inspecting the public psychiatric hospitals and held hearings."

In a legendary one-person operation, Codey went undercover in the 1980s at Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital. He took a job as a night orderly, using the identity of a deceased sexual offender.

"We later found that about one-third of those providing direct care to patients had criminal records," he said.

Ultimately, many members of the hospital's top management were fired, and the state established new requirements concerning background checks of psychiatric hospital employees.

Codey maintains a direct involvement with recipients of mental health services. He stopped to have breakfast with patients at Greystone immediately before signing the executive order establishing the Governor's Mental Health Task Force.FIG1

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Continuing her efforts to raise awareness of postpartum depression, New Jersey first lady Mary Jo Codey meets with new mother Stephanie Tidwell during a tour of the Childbirth Pavilion at Hackensack University Medical Center. 

Photo courtesy of the Office of Acting Gov. Codey

The Codeys' efforts to put a spotlight on mental illness have generated an" unbelievable" response, he said.

Codey said, "People pull me aside and thank me for what we're doing. They all have a story to tell."

He replied with an emphatic "yes," when asked whether his budget requests for mental health services were likely to pass. ▪

Anchor for JumpAnchor for Jump

Continuing her efforts to raise awareness of postpartum depression, New Jersey first lady Mary Jo Codey meets with new mother Stephanie Tidwell during a tour of the Childbirth Pavilion at Hackensack University Medical Center. 

Photo courtesy of the Office of Acting Gov. Codey

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