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NJAMHA CEO, NJMHI Deputy Director Named to Gov.’s Stigma Council

MERCERVILLE, NJ (October 7, 2005) – Debra L. Wentz, Ph.D., CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies, Inc. and Executive Director of the New Jersey Mental Health Institute (NJMHI); and Henry Acosta, MA, MSW, LSW, NJMHI Deputy Director; today were appointed by Acting Governor Richard Codey to the Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma. The pair is among 11 individuals chosen by Gov. Codey to develop and implement a coordinated master plan to increase public awareness and understanding of mental disorders.

“It is a great honor to be chosen by Governor Codey to be a member of the Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma,” said Dr. Wentz. “Since I entered the mental health field in 1995, I have made eliminating the stigma and discrimination of mental illness an integral part of NJAMHA’s public education efforts. However, despite our efforts and the visionary leadership of Gov. Codey, we still have very far to go in order to completely rid our society of the discrimination against those with mental illness. Hopefully, we can make significant strides towards that goal through the work of this Council.”

“This is a tremendous opportunity to help shape the future of how people with mental illness are perceived in our society,” said Mr. Acosta. “I am grateful to Governor Codey for including me with the other esteemed members of the Council and look forward to getting to work right away.”

For more than 10 years, NJAMHA and NJMHI, under the direction of Debra L. Wentz, have been at the forefront of educating the public about mental illness and dispelling the many myths that exist about these biologically-based brain diseases. In 1998, Dr. Wentz conceptualized and led the production and distribution of a highly successful broadcast and print public service announcement (PSA) that portrayed a number of highly recognizable famous people who had a mental illness and have helped advance society. The campaign subject included Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Sir Isaac Newton and Ludwig van Beethoven. To offset costs, Dr. Wentz secured an educational grant from Eli Lilly and Company and convinced Gillespie, a New Jersey-based national award-winning advertising and marketing firm, to produce the campaign pro bono. The ad equivalency of the PSA airing is quite impressive and to date tops the $9 million mark.

In 2002, Dr. Wentz, along with other mental health stakeholders, spearheaded an educational forum for the media titled Just the Facts, Ma’am, Just the Facts: Mental Illness and the Media in response to a defamatory headline that ran in a local newspaper on a story about a fire at one of the state’s psychiatric hospitals. The headline on the article referred to the residents of the hospital as “Roasted Nuts.” The program featured a historical view of mental illness portrayals in the media and there effects on society, a firsthand account from a consumer of mental health services on how stigmatizing images of mental illness in the media had adversely affected his life, as well as a roundtable discussion involving members of the media to formulate ideas on how to accurately report on mental illness without perpetuating stigma and stereotypes.

To further combat stigma and discrimination of mental illness and utilize private grant funds in those efforts, Dr. Wentz and NJAMHA’s Board of Directors created the New Jersey Mental Health Institute (NJMHI) in July 2000 as a private nonprofit charitable organization. NJMHI aims to promote quality mental health services through policy development initiatives, training, technical assistance, research, data collection, best practice development, and anti-stigma and anti-discrimination campaigns. Recognizing the lack of understanding of mental illness among the nation’s largest minority group, Hispancis, the NJMHI created the Changing Minds, Advancing Mental Health for Hispanics project in 2001 and hired Henry Acosta to lead it. The project and its programs address the nationwide lack of access to and quality of mental health services for Hispanics by obtaining a better understanding of the beliefs, attitudes, and barriers facing the Hispanic population in need of mental health services and by implementing effective strategies to address the identified barriers. Among the many project activities developed was a print and television public awareness campaign created to increase Hispanics’ knowledge about mental illnesses and available treatments and to reduce the stigma associated with both having a mental illness and utilizing mental health services.  The initiative included a 60-second broadcast television public service announcement (PSA) in English and in Spanish, in addition to bilingual print collateral material including posters, fact sheets and other educational material. The campaign reached Hispanics in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the nation’s largest media market.

To arrange an interview with Dr. Debra L. Wentz or Henry Acosta, please call (609) 838-5488, extension 225, or email dseymour@njamha.org.

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Based in Mercerville, New Jersey, the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies, Inc. (NJAMHA) is a statewide trade association representing the needs of nonprofit behavioral health provider organizations. Founded in 1951, NJAMHA represents 125 hospital-based and freestanding mental health agencies throughout New Jersey that employ more than 50,000 people and collectively treat more than 1 million incidences of mental illness and substance abuse annually. NJAMHA’s mission is to champion opportunities that advance its members’ ability to deliver accessible, quality, efficient and effective integrated behavioral health care services to mental health consumers and their families.

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