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Codey's legacy is beckoning

By Tom Davis

As acting governor, Richard Codey changed the long-held belief that only crazy people care about mental health.

He made his passion for mental health issues a priority. His approval ratings soared. He received 10,000 write-in votes in last year' selection.

Mental health advocates hope Governor Corzine will demonstrate a similar commitment.

But they're also wary.

"We're hoping we're not going to lose ground. I don't think we will," said Sylvia Axelrod, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Codey, the State Senate president who served the remainder of former Gov. James McGreevey's term, did more for mental health in his short term than most politicians do in a lifetime.

His proposals included:

  • Spending $40 million to boost the state's mental health services, such as screening centers and programs that provide alternatives to jail for people with mental illness.
  • Establishing a $200 million housing trust fund using leftover bond proceeds that would create 10,000 permanent housing units for the mentally ill over the next 10 years.
  • Creating an 11-member panel of mostly mental health professionals and advocates that will develop a master plan to educate school districts, employers and others who must deal with the mentally ill.

Whether it was on a radio program or for a newspaper article, Codey also found the time to speak passionately about his wife's battle with post-partum depression. He urged his colleagues to pass legislation that would force health-care providers to take mental health more seriously.

Corzine, on the other hand, has offered no specific proposals -- other than saying he will continue the work that Codey started.

"Governor and Mrs. Codey truly advanced the public dialogue on mental health issues in the state, "said a statement released by Corzine's office.

"The people of New Jersey are better off because of their sustained commitment to this cause. Governor Corzine is committed to continuing their efforts."

Axelrod noted that Corzine has supported mental health causes in the past. He served as an honorary chairman of NAMI New Jersey's Freedom From Stigma walk in 2004.

Budget issues, however, worry mental health advocates.

They realize that raising taxes is a political taboo. On that front, Corzine has already sounded the alarm, saying he's going to have to make tough decisions on this year's budget.

Corzine has always demonstrated himself to be a compassionate leader, said Debra L. Wentz, chief executive officer of the NJAMHA. She hopes he will not "balance the state budget on the backs of people with mental illness and other vulnerable populations."

Her organization, however, "understands that the state faces difficult fiscal decisions, but it is important to understand that mental health is vital to good overall health.

"A strong mental health system is a fiscally responsible investment, because failure to treat mental illness leads to enormous loss in lives and resources," she said.

She also noted that New Jersey mental health care providers serve 400,000 adults and children each year. Based on statistics provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, untreated mental illness costs New Jersey $3 billion annually in disability, unemployment, homelessness, hospitalizations, incarcerations and other societal problems.

"We sit in the school next to the child traumatized by abuse," she said. "We join hands with the veteran rebuilding his life. ... We are there for all children and adults, regardless of their ability to pay, whenever they are in need of help."

Wentz urged Corzine to continue to implement the recommendations of the Governor's Task Force on Mental Health, and to make adjustments in the child welfare system.

"A small investment now will save New Jersey billions later on and increase its reputation as a state that does not abandon the people who need its help the most," she said.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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