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Stories From Main Street: Mary Ann Uzzi Helps Make Paramus Stigma-Free

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) – What happens when you uncover a secret about mental illness in your own family?

In the case of Mary Ann Uzzi, of Paramus, New Jersey, you start a program to dispel the stigma around mental illness and make sure others in crisis have access to help.

For a heart attack, there's CPR; choking, the Heimlich; but what about a person suffering from a mental crisis? Uzzi helped bring mental health first aid training into Bergen County.

"They really give you all the things to look for and then how to respond to it in a positive manner," she told Sean Adams in this week's Stories From Main Street. "You're not a professional, but the support – just having somebody to talk to."

Paramus Stigma-Free, Mary Ann Uzzi
(Credit: Sean Adams/WCBS Newsradio 880)

Mental illness has long been ignored and swept under the rug, but she's bringing the issue to the fore.

"One in five adults has a diagnosable mental illness problem. For the children, it's one in eight and it's growing," she said.

Taking a cue from Hoboken, Uzzi started something called Paramus Stigma-Free, a task force and educational campaign. The mission is somewhat personal.

"I found after my father died that my grandmother committed suicide," she told Adams. "He never told us."

Paramus Stigma-Free
(Credit: Sean Adams/WCBS Newsradio 880)

It started with Stigma-Free lawn signs, flyers and educational sessions for police and schools. People soon responded and came out from the shadows.

"[One person] was in college at the time and he said, 'thank you for this. I wish they had it when I was in eighth grade and had my first crisis and nobody knew how to take care of me,'" she said.

She also heard from a teacher who's bipolar.

"She was so scared that the parents would find out that she quit her job," she said.

But after learning about the Stigma-Free movement, she told her friends and extended family on Facebook that she was ill.

"The response was marvelously supportive," she said.

So far, Stigma-Free has spread from Bergen County across New Jersey, into other states and now into Canada.

Hear their extended interview above and find more Stories From Main Street by clicking here.

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