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 https://www.eachmindmatters.org/