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FELICIAN UNIVERSITY NOW STIGMA-FREE

South Bergenite - 5/11/2017

RUTHERFORD -- Parents send their children off to college with dreams of them embarking on their journeys of healthy, young adulthood, but three-quarters of mental health disorders begin to manifest during that time at college by the age of 24.

As May 1 marked the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month, Felician University announced its commitment to helping students that are alone for the first time and may be experiencing mental illness. This week, the university became designated as a "Stigma-Free" zone.

Breaking the stigma and giving mental illness a voice was a theme shared by former Governor and Senator Richard J. Codey, Bergen County Executive James Tedesco III, local town officials and members of the Felician community on May 3.

For some speakers, the discussion hit close to home. Tedesco attended a memorial service in the morning for a county employee who killed himself in his office.

"He wasn't in the right frame of mind and in his office at our county park he took his own life," Tedesco shared.

May 1 started a mental health training for all county employees.

"I said to myself, would a week have made a difference? I don't know. But, I'm proud that my administration is giving employees mental health training," Tedesco said. "It's important and can save someone's life, if not their own."

Early in his career Codey went undercover for two weeks in a mental health hospital. After witnessing conditions, he championed reform as chairman of a health committee. On a more personal basis, Cody's wife suffered in silence with her own illness.

"She was extremely depressed and didn't know why, but she didn't want anyone to know," Codey said. "She would drive 15 miles away to get her medication so no one would know who she was because she had a stigma connected with mental illness."

Codey said his wife suffered from depression from 1989 to 2003 and experienced electric shock therapy, but she hasn't had an episode since 2004.

"This effects all of us," Codey said. "One out of every five families in the state has a loved one with mental illness."

The numbers are higher for college-aged students, according to Sean Campbell, a local activist for the mentally ill and founder of the Campbell Outreach Group.

"College is a very important time to have early intervention, both in providing counseling, treatment and referral services, while making college students aware and knowledgeable of the illnesses," he said.

East Rutherford resident and Bergen Community College student Alexandra Frontin who suffers from mental illness said it was her support system that helped her conquer depression and anxiety.

Frontin worked with East Rutherford Mayor James Cassella, to make her home town "Stigma Free."

Along with offering support for those who are suffering, being designated as "Stigma Free" leads to more open dialogue about the illness. With more open discussion comes less judgement, proponents said.

"We have to be willing to talk about this," Felician University President Dr. Anne Prisco said. "If we have a broken foot or arm, we talk about it. But, if it's mental health, it's hush-hush and we don't address it."

Felician is the eighth college in the state to receive the designation.

Last year, Rutherford also became a stigma-free community. Rutherford Councilwoman Stephanie McGowan led the charge making the town an "access for all" community after a neighbor committed suicide in 2015, which resulted in the family creating the Alfred M. Fiume Foundation.

"It's overwhelming. We need to build coalitions and empower our neighbors and friends. We have to understand that this movement is more than a sign and a green shirt," McGowan said. "The only time stigma plays a role is when it silences you."

Recent data shows that only 41 percent of people who have a mental health illness seek treatment. Campbell said there many variables, but stigma is one of the main reasons why people fail to reach out.

"It's an attitude that long existed," he said. "By breaking down the stigma on college campuses, it helps and that may be the critical time that people are seeking support."

A stigma free designation at a university will not only benefit students experiencing mental illness, but all students, Campbell said. "Even though everyone isn't going through a disorder, 100 percent of us need mental health of some kind," Campbell said. "On a campus it is beneficial to everyone when they are practicing positive mental health."

Positive mental health helps students be more productive in academics and in their career pursuits, and helps foster better interactions with peers, professors and the community, according to Campbell.

 
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