We have been operating since 1975, under Alameda County's Behavioral Health Care Services Agency (BHCS), to help people with mental illness increase their independence and self-sufficiency by achieving success in the workforce. We partner with various sta
But those Pleasant Hill folks should know that, in public meetings they attended in recent weeks, they might have been sitting next to either Jay Mahler or Lynn Gurko -- people battling mental-health issues their entire adult lives -- and not notice anything slightly menacing or amiss about them.
Mahler has battled schizophrenia since 1964.
Not only would I feel comfortable with my children around them, I would even trust them enough to ask Jay and Lynn to baby sit -- if they weren't so busy trying to destigmatize the populace about mental illness.
Mahler, 56, is coordinator of the county's Office for Consumer Empowerment.But before they started working for the county's mental health agency, they fought personal demons we can only imagine. I need to tell you their personal stories.If you don't come away with a new respect for their strength and determination, then you'd need something as powerful as the Hubble telescope to locate your bitter little heart. Child of the '60s, Mahler grew up in a typical suburban neighborhood in Hayward.He was an exceptional student, a politically aware teen and was all set to begin his freshman year at UC Berkeley in 1964 when something happened. "I was 18," he said."That summer before college, I was working on the Rumford Fair Housing Act for minorities.I was working at a table at Sather Gate, where all the action was.I thought I was having a great time." But slowly, without recognizing the signs, Mahler was having a nervous breakdown.After going six nights without sleep, he experienced what he calls "an altered state."It was his first schizophrenic episode and it happened right on the Cal campus. "They had to forcibly take me to the hospital, and I stayed there for most of the next two years," he said. So, instead of starting college, Mahler started shock treatments.Instead of studying for midterm exams, he was trying just to remember his name and where he was "because of how the shock scrambles your brain."He was in and out of hospitals for the next decade, either zoned out on high levels of Thorazine or strapped down for more shock treatment. "I felt like a wounded deer," Mahler said."Back then, the doctors believed schizophrenia was a chronic illness that got progressively worse over time.Now, we know you can get better.I did." But it was a long, hard haul for Mahler, made even more difficult by the public stigma he faced after returning to the general population."I felt the treatment was worse than the disease," he said."I was on heavy medication for 10 years before I started to realize what I needed to do to take care of myself." It was something of an epiphany for Mahler, whose neatly trimmed brown hair is just starting to gray.He decided he needed to get off the medicine and back into the world.With closely monitored therapy, he did just that.He wound up going back to school, becoming student body president at Chabot College and later working as the campaign manager for Gail Steele's first bid for the Oakland City Council. He since has become an advocate for mental health "consumers" -- their preferred word over "patient."He has spoken out for mental-health funding on the steps of the state capitol and will speak at Contra Costa's anti-stigma campaign kickoff event on Oct. 11 at Centre Concord. "I've been working since 1974, helping to get the mental-health community to change its thinking," he said."Now it's time to get out into the community at large, like in Pleasant Hill."
Jay MahlerJay is a survivor of forced electroshock who spent ten years in the mental health system.He is now a widely respected leader in California, where he founded Mental Health Consumer Concerns and the California Network of Mental Health Clients.Jay is pictured here at a MindFreedom strategy conference at Highlander. (Photo by Tom Olin.)