Recovering mentally ill youth recounts tale at CDCR event

Secretary Kernan discusses stigma of mental illness

Story by Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Photos by Scott Sabicer, Director, Television Communications Center
Office of Public and Employee Communications

CDCR Headquarters employees recently gathered in the atrium for Mental Health Matters Day to learn more about mental illness.

“The U.S. has the highest rate of death from mental health illness and substance abuse,” said CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan. “(Mental Health Awareness month) shines a light on that problem and brings awareness to the resources available.”

He said the department has suffered over 50 staff suicides since 2008.

“Our staff has a higher (post-traumatic stress disorder) PTSD rate than returning combat soldiers,” he told the gathering, stressing the importance of improving the mental wellness of employees. “What happens in law enforcement is we’re not willing to get help.”

Karen Moreno, Associate Director of CDCR’s Health and Wellness, said the department is committed to reducing the stigma of mental illness.

“We want people to ask for help when they need it and get help when they need it,” she said.

Joseph Robinson, president of California Coalition for Mental Health, said half of those with mental health conditions began exhibiting signs at age 14. Unfortunately, they usually didn’t get help for their condition until they were in their early 20s.

“I’m grateful to hear the Secretary speak openly about mental health,” he said.

Matt Gallagher, program director with the California Youth Empowerment Network, spoke of his personal recovery journey.

“My father, who was an alcoholic, abandoned me, my siblings and my mom. I was cramming for my midterms and SATs and I took on a part-time job,” he said.

He began working for a pizza restaurant 25 hours each week to help his family. He was 17 and looking forward to graduating high school but his life began spiraling out of control.

“Everything culminated into a mental health crisis,” he recalled.

When a school project went awry, the stress and pressures of life became too much. He began punching holes in the walls and being disruptive. His mother took his siblings and went to speak with mental health professionals.

“I had a mental health evaluation,” he said. “They diagnosed me with depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. The early assessment was really fragmented and multiple therapists were doing the assessment. I was not cooperative.”

Gallagher said his whole world came crashing down. His hopes for a normal future had just been snuffed out. High school graduation and college seemed like unattainable goals. The doctors wanted to put him on medication but he refused.

“I was self-medicating with drugs and alcohol,” he said. “I knew if they put me on pills, I wouldn’t use them as prescribed.”

The professionals put him in some art therapy for about four hours. After, they said there was nothing more they could do for him and released him to his mother.

He went out with friends that night, with a backpack full of marijuana and booze. His life changed when flashing police lights lit up their rear window.

“I knew I was in trouble. The officer took us all out of the car and I handed over my backpack and told him what was inside. I was placed in handcuffs and put in the back of the patrol car,” he said.

After the officer released the other children to their parents, he returned to the police car.

“That’s when he did something very unusual. He asked me to tell him what was going on. He said he recognized me from the pizza restaurant and knew I had delivered pizzas to the station before,” Gallagher recalled. “So I did what I couldn’t do with the therapists and I told him what was really happening. After, he said he was going to keep this between us. He had me pour out the alcohol and stomp the marijuana into the dirt.”

Gallagher said the officer had a few conditions for this arrangement. He was to meet with the officer every Sunday at 11 a.m. for an hour. Gallagher was also required to apologize to his mother for everything he’d put her through.

“Every Sunday from 11 to noon, he would come into the restaurant for lunch and we would sit and talk,” he said. “He taught me there is nothing wrong with seeking help when you need it. The officer helped me and got me on the road to recovery. He’s the reason I was able to graduate high school and I’ve been accepted to law school.”

Gallagher said he knows his experience is unlike many others but the officer took a special interest in him and went above and beyond the call of duty.

(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)

Learn more about mental health at


10 Responses

  1. S. Stuart Tuesday, May 31, 2016 / 9:43 am

    This is a wonderful story. At the same time, I can’t help but notice that Matt Gallagher is white. I hope there are situations like this in which an officer is equally compassionate with a person of color.

    • J. Carrillo Tuesday, May 31, 2016 / 10:23 am

      I’m sure that there are instances out there, but Mr. Gallager was the person who shared his story, so it makes sense that this article would pertain to him. I’m a “person of color” and whether his last name was the same as mine or his complexion different than mine, it would in no way add or detract from his courage in sharing his story or the inspiring nature of the kindness that officer demonstrated in going above and beyond to reach out to a young person in what proved to be a successful attempt to put him on a better path. I am astounded that anyone would assume that Mr. Gallagher’s race was the basis for the opportunity he was given, especially considering that for all we know based on this story, the officer himself may have been a “person of color”!

  2. Cynthia S. Tuesday, May 31, 2016 / 9:21 am

    It is amazing how 1 hour a day 1 day a week spent with a teen can speak volumes to that individual. This officer shared his heart with a teen who was losing his and in turn saved a life. What an inspiring story. Thank you for sharing Mr. Gallagher, you show much courage sharing your story.

  3. Lt. M. D. Williams, CCWF Saturday, May 28, 2016 / 12:14 am

    Don Chaddock, thank you for another AMAZING article. I fully enjoyed it! And great pictures Scott Sabier! Mental Health is important in the inmate population, as we address their issues through access to heathcare and sincere communication. More importantly, you must be able to help yourself before you can help others. It is great and courageous the way Mr. Gallagher shared his story of Mental Health. CDCR is doing an excellent job of tackling Mental Health Wellness from PTSD to Suicide, these issues are being addressed with solutions. Great job! Finally, to the Officer that went the extra mile with sincere communication, while also knowing his streets… I commend you. God Bless you. You have changed a life.

  4. Linda Hagen Friday, May 27, 2016 / 1:22 pm

    What an incredible and inspirational story. God bless that officer for going above and beyond to help this young man.

  5. S. Welch Thursday, May 26, 2016 / 3:14 pm

    It takes a lot of courage to share personal stories of challenges that affect our hearts and minds, but when people do it has a healing impact. This story demonstrates that mental health impacts of all us and we all have a roll to play in supporting those experiencing challenges – through our work, in our communities, and with friends and family. I proudly wear my lime green ribbon to express my support for those experience mental health challenges. Thank you CDCR for bringing this issue forward and being committed to addressing stigma and its consequences. This event provided hope to many.

  6. S. GRIFFIN Thursday, May 26, 2016 / 1:12 pm

    I am so happy that there was someone out there with a badge on that helped you instead of taking you to jail\ prison or shooting you. I have learned that sometime it is easier to talk to someone other than a psychologist. People think when you talk to a psychologist that you are crazy and no one wants to be called crazy when they are already going through/having personal issues with self/family. May this fellow continue to stand strong and pay it forward

  7. Richard Glassman Thursday, May 26, 2016 / 9:49 am

    This is a great article! I’m personally battling PTSD from an incident at my facility from 2014. IT affects relationships, sleeping, anxiety, and your overall mood of the day. I’m receiving help from our great department and hopefully will return back to a job I love. There is absolutely nothing wrong seeing a clinical psychologist because he teaches me every session a different tool to use when the PTSD Is getting the best of me. So far, this phrase from the movie Bridge of Spies is helping me a lot. Tom Hanks asked the spy “How come you never worry?” and the accused spy answers “Would it help?” I hope all of you reading this good luck in your career and when you need help please don’t be afraid of seeking it.

  8. J. Carrillo Thursday, May 26, 2016 / 9:34 am

    In a day when the media is quick to share news about the negative actions of law enforcement personnel, it is important that good people share the positive stories of their interactions with officers such as the one shared by Mr. Gallagher. It is clear that the time that officer invested in him was a crucial part of him turning his life around. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

  9. A. Downey Thursday, May 26, 2016 / 9:07 am

    I love this story! How amazing someone looked further than the immediate situation and took his own personal time to help someone he didn’t have a personal connection to. There is always hope.

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