UNION COUNTY, NJ — It was an emotional evening as state Sen. Richard Codey spoke at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Union County monthly meeting on April 26 in Westfield at the American Legion building. He remains dedicated to the cause of educating the public about mental illness by working with the Codey Foundation to convert towns throughout the state to stigma free zones.
“Senator Codey not only talks the talk, but he walks the walk when it comes to the topic of mental illness,” said Joann Mehalick, of Clark, a member of NAMI. Mehalick spoke about NAMI’s police training program on interacting with the mentally ill. “Through the assistance of our program, police throughout New Jersey are able to see these people as human beings. We made a video and have speakers with mental illness educate them on the subject. Our crisis intervention training program has been very successful.”
Codey became interested in helping people with mental illness at a young age. When he was only 19 years old, he worked for a funeral director and visited facilities such as Greystone Psychiatric Hospital where he witnessed patients being mistreated. He swore that if he ever got the chance, he would do everything in his power to help these people.
“I discovered that 35 percent of the employees at the mental health facility had a criminal background,” said Codey. “No one was saying anything, but I went public with the atrocities I saw and heard.”
About one in four people suffer with mental illness, and while no one plans to lead a life plagued by mental health problems, it’s a condition that affects many people and their families. Finding the right treatment can be a challenge, and many people suffering with mental illness fail to receive the proper treatment. NAMI works with families to help them find the appropriate treatment.
“NAMI’s mission is to educate, advocate and support the families of those with mental illness,” said the association’s Vice President Pat Roman, of Clark.
Codey spoke about his wife’s personal battle with mental illness. As he opened the doors of communication, more people felt comfortable to discuss their experiences as well. People were very empathetic with one another, and they expressed their wishes for legislators to work with the public to make sure people receive the treatment they need.
“At age 36, I finally met someone who would marry me,” said Codey. “She’s a teacher, and she loves kids. She got pregnant with our first child at age 39. Toward the end of her pregnancy, she wasn’t herself. After she gave birth, she admitted she felt depressed and was having thoughts of killing our 3-month-old baby.”
Codey brought her to Carrier Clinic to receive treatment for her depression. She had doubts about her recovery and told her husband to find someone else because she would never get better. Fortunately, her doubts were misguided as she was able to get well with medication. When she got pregnant again with their second child, she went off the medicine and her depression returned. Her only options at this point were to receive electric shock therapy or abort the baby. She opted for the shock treatment, which was a success.
After giving birth to their second child, she was able to start taking the medication again. One day, Codey received a call from their son that the police were at the house and that his wife had suffered a seizure due to high serotonin levels. The doctors had failed to prescribe the appropriate dosage of the medication. Later, when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to go for a double mastectomy, her depression returned.
“Mental health has come a long way,” said Codey. “My wife claims she would rather have breast cancer than suffer one day of depression. There’s still a stigma that surrounds mental health. No one wants to talk about it, but everyone is more than willing to wear pink to show their support for breast cancer. There aren’t too many advocates for mental health. It’s more common now, too. Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise, and it’s increased 700 percent in the last 12 years. Because it’s a disease of the brain, no one is marching on Washington.”
According to Codey, although suicide is on the rise among white women, men and minorities are less likely to admit they are suffering with mental health conditions. As a part of the Codey Foundation, he plans to work with psychiatrists to get them to relocate to urban areas so more people can receive treatment. In exchange for working in a less affluent community, Codey promises to pay off their medical school costs.
Greystone’s closing, it’s now reopened and is providing patients with satisfactory care. Gov. Chris Christie recently closed another state mental health facility that was running properly to cut costs, which has caused an outrage among many people that need treatment. Audience members expressed wishes that Codey return to the office of governor so that people with mental illness will be more likely to receive the best treatment. As he turned the conversation over to audience members, many of them became emotional as they responded to Codey’s speech.
One woman was unable to express herself verbally, and she instead responded with a handwritten letter to express her concerns. A young man living at a group home for the mentally ill expressed his gratitude for people like Codey who are dedicated to the needs of those suffering with mental illness. Lastly, a father expressed his grief for the loss of his son, whose life was taken by the hands of the Westfield police during a psychotic episode ten years ago. Codey expressed his sympathy for the man’s loss and assured him that police have also come a long way when it comes to handling the mentally ill.
Codey concluded the meeting by urging citizens to write to their legislators about the importance of treating mental illness and providing the right care for those suffering with these diseases. He expressed his interest in electing Phil Murphy into office as governor because of his genuine concern for the public. He reinforced the fact that we need to elect leaders that care for people and will work to make sure they receive the best possible care.