TRENTON, N.J. – When a radio shock jock insulted acting Gov. Richard J. Codey's (search) wife, making fun of her bout with postpartum depression, it catapulted the former kindergarten teacher and mother of two onto a national stage.
Mary Jo Codey (search), 49, is using the platform well, mental health advocates say.
"Because of her stature and candor, Mrs. Codey's voice alone is having a significant impact on reducing the stigma of mental illness, particularly postpartum depression," said Sylvia Axelrod, executive director of New Jersey's Alliance for Persons Affected by Mental Illness (search).
Codey said she was motivated to talk publicly about mental illness because she felt there was nowhere to turn when she was a depressed, young mother.
"There was nothing out there. There was not one book," Codey said Thursday. "I made up my mind in the psychiatrist's office, if I ever got out of it, I would educate the public about it."
She has spoken to local women's clubs about her joyless first year of motherhood 20 years ago, revealing that she had thoughts of drowning her son in a bathtub and putting the baby in a microwave. And she has talked about a battle with mental illness that has included shock treatments and time in a psychiatric hospital.
Her struggles received a surge of publicity last month, when WKXW-FM radio host Craig Carton (search) suggested that women who suffer from postpartum depression should relax by smoking marijuana "instead of putting their babies in the microwave."
The acting governor confronted Carton at the radio station, and said he told Carton that, if he were not governor, he "would take him outside."
Carton, however, said Codey actually threatened to "take him out." He has demanded an apology and vowed to wage a campaign to bury Codey's political career if the acting governor refused.
"State government came out against a private citizen and used the power of the Democratic Party to try to threaten me in a verbal manner into not doing my job," Carton said Friday.
"I worry about all the other talk show hosts, about the op-ed columnists, the truck drivers, who if they say something a powerful politician doesn't like, they have to look over their shoulder," he said.
Since the confrontation, Mary Jo Codey has gotten hundreds of letters and e-mails of support — from mental health advocates, people battling depression and family members of the mentally ill.
"I can't keep up with it," her personal assistant, Beth J. Milton, said. "I'm teaching her to say no, because she's completely booked."
The acting governor said Thursday that people stop his wife to offer praise.
"When we go out in public, people will pull my wife aside and say, 'We can't thank you enough for what you're doing for my wife, or my son, who has mental illness,"' Codey said. "That happens every night and day."
The acting governor has long been an advocate for mental health causes, in part because of his wife's illness. He recently created a task force to study ways to improve services to the mentally ill and, as a young legislator in 1987, went undercover to expose flaws in care at the state-run Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital.
Earlier this week, an Assembly panel approved a resolution reprimanding Carton, and the station struck a deal with mental health advocates to air public service announcements during Carton's program.
"I'm amazed by the support," Mary Jo Codey said. "I'm surprised the public knows so much about postpartum depression."
As for her husband's spat with the radio host, the first lady said she's "grateful" that he came to her defense.
"I think he handled it just great," she said.