Pictured: Dr. Sevet Johnson, director of Ventura County Behavioral Health, during the July 20, 2020 meeting of the Behavioral Health Advisory Board. Still from Zoom recording.
by Kimberly Rivers
At the July 20 meeting of the Ventura County Behavioral Health Advisory Board (BHAB), Dr. Sevet Johnson, director of Ventura County Behavioral Health (VCBH) used the agenda item listed as her director’s report to instead chastise one of the BHAB volunteer members for writing and sharing a letter that chronicled the story of one local resident in need of mental health treatment in the county and to ask that BHAB disavow the letter.
On June 24, Mary Haffner, secretary of BHAB, emailed a letter to various stakeholders and elected officials, which chronicled the story of a man in Ventura County suffering from schizophrenia. The information was shared with permission from the man’s mother, and the same information was reported through an interview with the mother in a July 8 VCReporter article titled, “A failure of care: One family’s harrowing journey reveals inadequacies of mental health services.”
Johnson’s critique of Haffner called her “callous” and “unconscionable,” saying the man’s rights had been violated. No names were used in Haffner’s letter or the article, and Haffner said no HIPPA laws were violated.
Haffner’s letter included the following introductory paragraph: “In the past 22 months, he has been 5150’d nine times, arrested twice for assault, jailed once, homeless, involved in two at-fault automobile accidents injuring himself and another driver, been the subject of a restraining order, and threatened violence on numerous people. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and chronic psychosis and has a documented history of violent outbursts and threats. For over two years, his mother has tried to get him the help he needs for his illness, and on June 19, 2020, she sent an email warning people, including county employees, that she fears something ‘catastrophic’ could happen because he is violent, easily triggered, and not taking his medication. A county employee who recently checked on him agreed with his mother that this young man is dangerous. This morning, June 24, he called his mother from the hotel, slurring, delusional, unable to finish sentences, and belligerent.”
The letter goes on to chronicle these events in a detailed timeline form, stating that Haffner had permission from the resident’s mother to share the information in order to advocate for proper care and treatment for her son.
“One department of a county with 867,000 people cannot be responsible for all of this,” said Johnson, responding to Haffner’s letter and speaking of the challenges in providing effective treatment for the metally ill. “This department is being unjustly attacked and targeted for following the laws and regulations.” Johnson said VCBH is being held responsible “for the role that other agencies have played” in the mental health care system in the county.
Regarding Haffner’s letter, she said, “It is callous to be appointed to advocate for a group of people only to further alienate and continue the false narrative,” that they are something to “fear in the community.”
She said Haffner’s letter demonstrates “the stigma, demonization and marginalization of those living with severe and persistent mental illness.”
“Sevet, you brought a tear to my eye,” said Linda Parks, Ventura County Supervisor and BHAB member. “The idea that someone with mental illness can recover is one of the most important things for all of us to remember . . . the idea that one could have mental illness, get cured, recover and then find out that his record has just been spread across the state of California affecting his ability to get a job . . . that to me really does attack all people with mental illness.”
The story at issue is about a person diagnosed with severe schizophrenia, who suffers from hallucinations and has had several psychotic breaks. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Schizophrenia requires lifelong treatment, even when symptoms have subsided. Treatment with medications and psychosocial therapy can help manage the condition,” but the person will need treatment throughout life and the condition cannot be cured.
“These stories have to be told”
“Mary’s [Haffner] letter does a very thorough job of outlining the tremendous gaps in this county’s mental health system, and the incompetence of various providers along the way . . . in spite of all of the hard work that is happening on a continuous basis and the millions of dollars that are going to provide mental health services,” said Claudia Armann, BHAB member. “At the end of the day, I still don’t know the response from staff about . . . the steps that are going to be taken to right each of those problems all along the way. Instead the energy and the passion… is being put forth in attacking the messenger and that is very troubling to me.”
Armann reminded the board that “tension” is often needed to cause change and “in every movement to create change, especially in a system that is very entrenched, it is personal stories that galvanize change and it’s often the press that illuminates these problems . . . I think it’s important that we keep telling the stories of what the challenges are, protecting people’s identities, yes, but these stories have to be told and they have to be told over and over unless I think we’re gonna be here a decade from now and meaningful substantial change wouldn’t have happened.”
“If you could just hear the hundreds and hundreds of stories of those in NAMI Ventura County,” said Roberta Griego, director of operations for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She said the stories would “bring you to tears, that’s what we hear every day.” She supports a committee with outside partners like NAMI and others to look at the issues, saying the move “is long past due.”
Role of BHAB
Johnson said the statute governing the BHAB “does not allow” for it or its members “to share its feedback with other elected officials or the press.” She did not respond by press deadline to questions about whether it’s her understanding that the work of the BHAB is not a matter of public record. All meetings of the BHAB are public, and all findings and recommendations must be agendized, publicly noticed, discussed and decided at public meetings, which the press is entitled to attend.
She then called on the BHAB board to issue a “public letter denouncing and having zero tolerance for any person that adds to or perpetuates the practices of the stigmatization, demonizing, fear mongering,” toward the mentally ill and in opposing the release of any private information “by anyone on this board.”
“We do have some gaps in terms of continuum of care. This is not a reflection on anybody in particular, it’s just that’s the situation the county’s in,” said Jerry Harris, chair of BHAB. He did say the BHAB needs to address the gaps.
Haffner responded to Johnson’s comments, saying that the VCBH director’s statement “does not address the real issues . . . we are demonizing me, as somebody who is callus and unconscionable,” who is “doing nothing but advocating on behalf of the seriously mentally ill.” She called Johnsons’ comments “gaslighting, it was deflection. I serve on this board voluntarily because I believe we can make a difference; each and every one of us can make a difference for a population that suffers greatly.”
“I’ve worked a lot with schizophrenics,” said Margaret Cortese, BHAB member and retired psychologist. She has “strong feelings [on the idea] of therapy with schizophrenics,” which she said “is extremely difficult by nature of their illness. They resist connecting, the connection is the core of a therapeutic relationship. It is extremely difficult work.” She recalled that in the past, there were not enough therapists willing to work with those with schizophrenia.
“I don’t believe change is going to happen unless we do tell these stories,” and Haffner challenged the board to look at “how they translate on the ground in real time for people who are suffering from these illnesses . . . it’s not going to serve . . . the seriously mentally ill if we try to deflect from . . . how are our programs are servicing the people who need the services.”