Opinion: Mental health is not something to be politicized or demonized

In the spring of 2002, I was wrapping up my undergraduate studies at California State University, Sacramento and had traveled to Missoula to tour the University of Montana campus and to meet with academic advisors about my interest in the graduate program in journalism—renowned not just as one of the oldest, but also one of the best in the country.

My campus visit was cut short because I got word my father had tried to kill himself back in Sacramento.

While I raced to get home, my father had been taken to Sacramento County’s psychiatric care facility and placed on a “5150”—California’s process for an involuntary commitment of individuals who present a danger to themselves or others due to signs of mental illness.

My father was 50 when I was born, but an old 50, brought on by numerous injuries and 100% service-related disabilities from his three decades on active duty in the Air Force.

Divorce from my mother—the second of several wives—happened early, when I was 18 months old. He wasn’t a part of my life for a lot of years, but when the time came for me to choose a college, I left Los Angeles and went to Sac State in part because his health was rapidly failing and I wanted to get to know him better and be there for him.

He had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and his wife of the moment would sometimes take off, deciding she didn’t want to be his caregiver at times, then come back when she wanted.

Inevitably, the caretaker role often became my job, at 19, which found me leaving classes after getting calls from neighbors saying my father was wandering around in his boxer shorts, or helping him during manic, or sometimes violent, episodes, or having to fly home from Montana after he tried to kill himself and ended up institutionalized.

For years, until his death in 2004, we navigated my father’s bi-polar disorder while also dealing with the trauma and stigma around mental illness. People mocking him. Afraid of him. Dismissing him. Disparagingly describing him and what he was going through. Using hurtful words, lacking empathy, talking about mental illness as shameful and something to be embarrassed about.

Yesterday, Long Beach City Council candidate Robert Fox, backed by his campaign manager, Ian Patton, issued a press release rife with inflammatory, stigma-filled and ableist language about mental illness.

In it, the Fox campaign spent multiple pages repeatedly describing a former campaign volunteer, Lee Richmond Charley, as a mentally ill individual. To my knowledge, neither Fox nor Patton are psychiatrists, or psychologists, or licensed professionals qualified to diagnose anyone of anything.

Moreover, if the Fox campaign was so concerned about Charley’s mental health, why did they repeatedly encourage his behavior? What did any of them do to intervene or get Charley help if they were truly concerned?

Charley’s apparent sin? Saying that he volunteered to help the Fox campaign dig up evidence against opponent Cindy Allen, then providing documents and information about these activities to Allen’s campaign and local media organizations.

In the press release, Fox and Patton bring up mental illness no fewer than six times, referring to Charley as having experienced a “bi-polar episode” and his actions as those of an “obsessed supporter,” “disturbed,” “deranged rantings,” and “Unabomber-esque.”

Charley, a Navy veteran, has acknowledged that he suffers from PTSD, but rejected the Fox campaign’s assertions and inappropriate descriptions that he is “in a delusional state” making “deranged rantings.” Charley told us he was never asked by Fox or Patton about his mental health.

There are words and phrases so completely reprehensible and so morally and ethically stigmatizing that, like problematic language around developmental disabilities, or the LGBTQ community, or around race and ethnicity, or other health conditions, our society has largely and thankfully abandoned their use.

The same must be true of mental illness, the stigma around it and how we talk about it. Candidates for public office should absolutely understand that as well.

That Patton would author this release, that Fox would bless its publication, are unfortunately just the latest examples in a string of tone-deaf, unacceptable descriptions and actions by the Fox campaign and its associates.

Some reading this may draw the conclusion that I’m anti-Robert Fox, or allege I’m indirectly endorsing Cindy Allen (a former owner of the Post years ago), or that I’ve been influenced by Allen’s political ally and friend Mayor Robert Garcia (another former owner and co-founder of the Post even more years ago).

Absolutely none of that is the case. We don’t endorse candidates. We have no position on who should represent the residents and interests of the 2nd District. That’s wholly in the hands of voters.

As publisher of the Long Beach Post and Business Journal, I understand my responsibilities and the power of my position by weighing-in on the actions and unacceptable rhetoric of Fox, his campaign, and his associates.

I don’t write often. I don’t have many bylines. That is intentional. Now is an exception.

My father spent years suffering from mental illness. It’s not something to be politicized or demonized. Not by Robert Fox. Not by Ian Patton. Not by anyone.

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David Sommers is publisher of the Long Beach Post. As the publication’s top leader, he is responsible for everything from editorial and advertising to technical and corporate operations. On any given day, you can find him meeting with advertisers, schmoozing with city leaders and poring over tough news decisions. He’s also responsible for fixing the copy machine, setting up officer furniture and keeping the newsroom well-stocked with paper towels and coffee pods.