Mental Giant

One of the Valley's most revered mental-health advocates struggles with cancer

On August 26, longtime mental-health advocate Jack Harvey stepped into familiar haunts to deliver some God-awful news.

"I just had to let people at the office know that I'm not doing so well, that I'm pretty sick at the moment," says Harvey.

The "office" houses the Mental Health Advocates Coalition of Arizona, a nonprofit agency for whom Harvey had been volunteering 40 to 60 hours a week since retiring as a social worker in the mid-1990s.

Mental-health advocate Jack Harvey
Paul Rubin
Mental-health advocate Jack Harvey

He spoke that day to Mickie White-Carstens, the coalition's new president, who learned that the 71-year-old Harvey -- one of her heroes -- had just been diagnosed with an inoperable, malignant, fast-growing brain tumor.

"It just hit me hard," she recalls. "He's been like a giant oak to the mentally ill in this state for a long time, committed and devoted, and here he was, telling me he wasn't going to be around anymore.

"Ever since that day, I feel like I've been in some kind of Twilight Zone episode. He's completely irreplaceable."

People inside Arizona's mental-health world long have considered Harvey one of this state's most durable and effective advocates for the seriously mentally ill. He's also extremely well-liked as a person, no small matter in what often is a frustrating and emotionally charged environment.

Harvey has worked tirelessly to depict the mentally ill as a population that should be nurtured, not scorned, since shortly after he started a 30-year stint as a social worker at the Arizona State Hospital (ASH). His efforts in recent years at the Arizona Legislature as a lobbyist for the mentally ill haven't always been successful -- good luck with that crowd when it comes to funding social services -- but that didn't seem to daunt him.

"What I remember most about Jack is the passion he always had about the bad shake that the mentally ill get in this state," says Tyrone Mayberry, a former planning manager for the Arizona Department of Behavioral Health Services. "He could really get after it if he thought that some group, or some agency, wasn't doing what the law said they should do, but he always was a great guy, even when he was mad."

Another admirer, Phoenix nurse Susan Shank, says that Harvey isn't "the compliment-seeking, sometimes do-gooder that you sometimes see in his line of work. He's just a do-gooder." Years ago, Shank sought counsel from Harvey because of a family member's mental illness.

A few days after Harvey told White-Carstens about his terminal illness, he checked into a room at the Life Care Center of Paradise Valley. There last week, surrounded by flowers, get-well posters, photographs of his beloved grandchildren, and a framed letter written to him in 1999 by Tipper Gore (who has had her own bouts with severe depression), Harvey spoke about his life and about the continued plight of the seriously mentally ill in Arizona.

He starts by apologizing in advance for not being able to think clearly -- the tumor already is doing its evil work -- but he can recall the important things; for example, that he was one of eight children born in Iowa to a carpenter and a homemaker. A master's-level social worker who graduated from the University of Iowa, Harvey migrated to Arizona in the 1960s.

A brother's mental illness was Harvey's catalyst for what would become a career as a social worker at ASH, located at 24th Street and East Van Buren. When he started that job in the 1960s, ASH was an antiquated hellhole that served more as a warehouse for the mentally ill than as a place to heal.

These days, the old hospital only has a fraction of its former population (many seriously mentally ill people now live at the homeless shelter, or on the streets of downtown Phoenix), and soon will be discarded for a new facility now being built at the same site.

"There have been a lot of changes down there [at ASH], and mostly for the better," Harvey says. "But what I've been really worried about recently is just that it's getting more and more difficult for the mentally ill to get funding, and with this budget crisis, it's going to get worse before it gets better. Money for the mentally ill always is one of the first things to go in this state, and I still don't think a lot of legislators understand the issues concerning the mentally ill."

Harvey is adamant that sentencing many mentally ill people to long prison terms is destructive and unnecessary: "They serve the longest sentences in the harshest environment, which most of the time makes them sicker and sicker. Prison life is not the way to cure a mental illness.

"I know a lot of dedicated law enforcement people who feel this way, too. But, unfortunately, at this time, our state doesn't show a lot of promise in wanting to fund the building of facilities that are safe, both for the public and for the seriously mentally ill."

Harvey begins to tire after talking about 45 minutes from his bed at the nursing home, but asks to make one more comment before getting some rest.

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