My Year of Learning About Suffering and Hope

I write on January 31, the eve of the one-year departure from my job of 22 years.  I left the Hollywood BID on February 1, 2019 to make myself fully available to keep front and center a vision for a new approach to mental health care.   It has been a rich blessing to have the gift of time to be available to venture outside of Hollywood and to be more fully present as I sit with people to hear their stories and observations.  Given the luxury of designing my days, I am learning a lot.

Visting a shelter in Minneapolis

I have been able to go to many places — Trieste, of course (twice).  But also Rome, and regions in Southern Italy.  Closer to home, I’ve been to Minneapolis and spent time with their intrepid outreach workers for the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District.  At a summit  I facilitated in Minneapolis, I met homeless outreach professionals from two dozen cities across the country, including Seattle, Orlando, Boston and Houston.    This – the plight of people with untreated mental illness left to languish on our streets — is a national crisis unfolding; not just limited to Los Angeles.

I travelled to Orange County to sit for a couple hours to hear the frustrated observations of a nurse who had worked with mentally ill inmates in the LA County jail system for over 20 years.

New friends and mentors gathered in New Orleans for NOLA conference October 2019

I was privileged to participate in a day-long conference organized by the intrepid Janet Hayes of Healing Minds in New Orleans where I could hang with some of my heroes and mentors in this work. 

I’ve read Bedlam the book and watched Bedlam the documentary and feel hopeful for how this documentary will educated people about our system.

Sarah Dusseault and I have the opportunity to spend the day with Steve Fields of the Progress Foundation Feb 2019

I’ve been able to learn about organizations who are doing super-human work:  The Progress Foundation in San Francisco;  Exodus Recovery in Lincoln Heights.  I have toured Village Family Services in North Hollywood, the Alcott Center for Mental Health and Hillview Mental Health Center in Pacoima.  One does not have to travel all the way to Trieste to witness hospitality and human-centered care.   We can do this in the US;  we just have to commit to loosen our rules, trust people’s judgment, engage the community and reimburse for this mode of service delivery.

I feel hopeful about the leadership in our county and in our departments of mental health and health services. Our Los Angeles board of supervisors recognizes the importance of improving services to people living with mental illness in our county. We’ve seen positive action to shore up our board and care system, and pursue alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness.

Participating in a convening sponsored by the California Hospital Association, my eyes were opened to the challenges faced by hospital social workers who have few options when it comes to discharge planning for their homeless patients.

I have met with folks involved in our justice system – judges, public defenders and deputy district attorneys —  who desperately hope for a better way to shepherd people into treatment and housing stability. 

When in New York last month on personal business, I didn’t try to get tickets to a  Broadway production.  Rather, I used my free time to learn more about the New York “right to shelter” system and how people with mental illness are treated in that city.  I met with local BID leaders, the Manhattan Institute, the Greenberger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, Fountain House to discuss the prospects of creating a clubhouse for people living with mental illness in Hollywood  and I visited a safe haven for people with mental illness.

But the situations that have rocked my world involve listening to the stories of parents, siblings and patients in our system who feel completely derailed and marginalized.  This is where the suffering lies.  My heart grows heavy as I absorb these stories and I am overwhelmed by my inability to do anything to help.   But I sense that I am absorbing their pain for a reason, so I can join in their voices for change.  And I pray for them.

It’s a mystery why I’ve been called into this work.  In my family story, there is no mental illness.  I took one Psych 101 class in college. 

I lead with my credential as a human being who cares — and I’m finding in my journey that there are hundreds and hundreds like me.  I speak to neighborhood groups and I am contacted afterwards by people who feel frustrated because they don’t know HOW to help, WHO to call, WHAT to do.  When this feels like a completely impossible undertaking, I am buoyed that if there are hundreds like me in this county, then there are thousands and thousands in this state.  Likely, there are hundreds of thousands in this country.    How do we link these voices?  Could this be a movement in the future?  Possibly. 

Staying focused, I am placing my hope in our mental health pilot slated for Hollywood.  I am grateful for the vision of Dr. Jonathan Sherin, the director of LA County Department of Mental Health, to take the risk to pursue this bold initiative and to the state Oversight Committee for the Mental Health Services Act who voted to support it last May. Here we will have opportunity to show what is possible.  When there is new news about its launch, you will be the first to know.

My amazing team — on February 1, 2019 — my last day after 22 years of having the privilege to take care of Hollywood

11 thoughts on “My Year of Learning About Suffering and Hope”

  1. This is a topic very close to my heart and my experience in Hollywood. I hope someday you and I can have coffee and talk more.

  2. I have sadly and maddenly seen many promising, innovative programs initiated with widespread support and much fanfare, fail. It is nearly impossible for them not to, given the significant systemic challenges that need to be identified, navigated and overcome. Sadly, they fail for the same reason so many promising people do not reach their full healing potential. The system is a completely disconnected, fragmented, bureacratic… mess. And while administrators are actively requesting “innovative” programs, they often are not actually equipped to recognize, support, measure or sustain innovative approaches.  They often view and measure them through the eyes of what they already know and already do, and put no or ineffective accountability or oversight measures in place.  Time and time again, new programs are implemented, with the best of intentions, but for many reasons, the delivery of services does not change, just what the services are called, how they are funded, where they are provided, etc.   And eventually even the most dedicated and committed administrators and professionals lose sight of why they began working in their field in the first place and of what is really possible. We have been providing sickness medicine for a very long time, in large part because of how services have been funded, and due to the low expectations held regarding the potential of all people (including those diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness, and/or long histories of homelessness and/or legal histories), to live fulfilling and productive lives.  This is my long winded way of saying, I understand, only too well, the significant challenges of successfully engaging and including all stakeholders and of implementing and measuring the efficacy of  a truly innovative program. I applaud everything you have accomplished to date, Kerry, and can not wait to see this pilot move forward.  Bravo!

    1. Kathleen, the word you use — fragmented — is so spot on. This is what I’ve witnessed over this past year. I try to think in metaphors to explain this to people who wonder what I am working on. I have an image of a flotilla of boats, trying to care for people, but there is no easy way to connect to the mother ship. This is not a system. Systems imply connectedness. Thank you for continuing to encourage. I don’t intend to give up.

  3. Hi Kerry
    I admire your courage and love. May Jesus join in the change. And inspire us to make a difference in our own communities.

    1. Raquel – Amen to that! Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t know whether to make a left turn or a right turn. Anticipating what this pilot might accomplish, we are walking through a fog, and as I like to say: “every day, the fog clears by one day’s worth of fog.”

  4. Dear Kerry,

    Your travels shine a light on the wonderful work being done here and abroad. Together we can end this crisis through housing, treatment, and community. I will eagerly pass along this link to others.

    Thank you,
    Patty

  5. So many steps to just overcome the inertia to get things moving. I cautiously share your optimism. I feel like there really isn’t a choice. I have seen too many people respond to this crisis in anger, which in turn leads to solutions that involve removing people, isolating people, just making the problem disappear.

    1. Dear Kerry,
      This is all very exciting. Looking forward to reading and hearing more from you. We will be in touch soon.

      Debby Thomas

    2. Caroline, I am not a physicist, but isn’t there a law that suggests that once we get past the inertia of not moving, then things pick up? I’ll link arms with your cautious optimism and hope that this is the year we can stimulate that inertia.

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