Stigma Free Movement Spreads to Ramapo

Photo by Hope Patti

Former New Jersey governor, Richard Codey, proclaimed Ramapo College stigma free on Wednesday as part of disability awareness month.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among college students mostly because the stigma surrounding mental illness deters students from coming forward about their struggles.

“Since the spring of 2015, a dedicated group of students and staff have been working to stomp out stigma here at Ramapo College,” said President Peter Mercer. “Their goal has been to raise awareness, facilitate an open dialogue and help every individual realize their optimal mental health.”

In an effort to make Ramapo stigma free, the college has hosted countless workshops and guest speakers, held student panels to open the topic to discussion and completed more than 200 mental health screenings.

“You are not alone. You are never alone,” Mercer told students as he reminded them of the counseling services available on campus, as well as the emergency on call counselor available through Public Safety 24 hours a day.

Among the large crowd of students present were Mahwah Mayor Bill Laforet and Bergen County Executive, James Tedesco, as well as several members of Ramapo’s Trustee Board.

Bergen County was the first county in New Jersey to join the stigma free initiative, a fact that Tedesco is very proud of.

“Today, Ramapo becomes part of a movement here in New Jersey and in Bergen County to become stigma free and to treat mental health issues like they should be treated: a disease,” Tedesco said. “I’m a cancer survivor and I had the best treatment in the world. People with mental illness should have the same kind of care. They need to be looked at no different than I am as a cancer survivor.”

Trustee and Ramapo alumnus A.J. Sabath introduced the former governor by praising the work Codey has done for the mentally ill.

“He made his mark when he went undercover to expose the mistreatment of residents at an institution,” said Sabath. “Throughout the course of his political career he’ll be known for many things, but being an advocate for those suffering from mental illness and the support of their families is something that I think he’ll be much revered for and most remembered for.”

Former governor Codey expressed his passion and dedication to reducing the stigma and shame associated with mental illness in both his political and personal life.

“With a mental illness, to cure it, the person has to speak up and say ‘I’m hurting, I need help.’ When you do that, you’ve taken a giant step toward recovery. Simple as that,” said Codey.

He went on to explain that the stigma surrounding mental illness caused his wife to drive to pharmacies in other towns to pick up her medications as she struggled with her own health problems.

My wife will tell you one bad day of depression equals 12 years of having breast cancer. She had the intelligence many years to say to me, and she was embarrassed, ‘I need help’,” said Codey.

Codey continued to stress that the best way to move forward is to open the discussion on mental illness and make people more comfortable talking about it. He explained that many years ago, no one would talk about cancer, simply calling it “the C” instead. Now that people are talking about cancer, great strides have been made in treatments.

“By having these signs up, it shows Ramapo is a stigma-free campus and a lot of people are going to say ‘What’s that?' And that’s great because then you have a discussion about it. The more we talk about it, the more people get help,” he said.

Tricia Baker, co-founder of Attitudes in Reverse, also spoke about how mental illness has affected her life and the strides she and her organization have taken in educating young adults.

“In New Jersey alone, youth suicide in ages 10-24 increased 14 percent last year, and shame on us because we’re still not talking about it,” said Baker.

Her son, Kenny, lost his battle with depression and anxiety in 2009. Like Codey’s wife, he was embarrassed about his illness and told his classmates that he had mononucleosis rather than the truth. Baker and her family have turned their loss into a message to educate people and decrease the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

“If we can educate young people about what signs and symptoms are, so that they know they can see it within themselves or maybe within a friend, they get help early,” she said. “The earlier you treat an illness, the more likely the success of treatment.”

“Just be kind to each other and not judgmental,” she told students in the audience. “It’s so hard today to be a young person with a mental health disorder."

“I think he handled it in a good way. It’s a hard topic to talk about,” said freshman Kate Shirkey.

Sophomore Kristen Behrens agreed saying, “It’s nice to see that they have something like this, where people can go and speak about what they think.”

“Get help and you’ll lead a much better life,” Governor Codey concluded. “You can get cured, you will get cured, but you have to speak up.”