Dr. Mark Salerno Is Living Proof That It's Possible to Overcome Mental Illness

Dr. Mark Salerno steps to a podium, gripping a tattered black shoe.

It is a crisp and bright early December morning in Peoria, on 99th Avenue south of Grand Avenue. About 40 people are seated under a tent at the rear of a psychiatric crisis center operated by the nonprofit Recovery Innovations of Arizona.

Today is ribbon-cutting day at the newly rebuilt clinic, which serves as a quasi-emergency room for the mentally troubled. It's called The Living Room, and just about anyone who walks in can get crisis services for up to three days. (What happens after that depends on several variables.)

Dr. Mark Salerno
Jamie Peachey
Dr. Mark Salerno
Michelle Bloss and Mark Salerno of Recovery Innovations of Arizona
Jamie Peachey
Michelle Bloss and Mark Salerno of Recovery Innovations of Arizona

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Shadow Dwellers: A Series

What's the one image you took away from the Tucson shootings? We thought so. That mugshot of Jared Loughner is haunting. And for the world, it has become the face of mental illness in Arizona. Here, we know that's not true. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the story of what it's like to be mentally ill in this place cannot be told in a single photograph.

Tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill people live in Arizona. Some of them look just like you.

Other stories in the series:

Phoenix's Most At-Risk Homeless Find Their Way, Thanks to a Team of "Navigators", by Paul Rubin

Meet Raven, a Homeless Man with More Community Than Many of Us Have, by Paul Rubin

Why Did the Arizona Department of Corrections Put a Mentally Ill Man in Cell with a Convicted Killer?, by Paul Rubin

Mental Illness Hasn't Stopped Chris Shelton from Becoming a World-Class Boxing Historian, by Paul Rubin

Jan Brewer's Response to Jared Loughner: Slash More Than 35 Million in Services from an Already Beleaguered Mental Health System, by Paul Rubin and Amy Silverman

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Salerno is manager of The Peoria Recovery Response Center (a.k.a. The Living Room), a warm, welcoming spot that focuses on providing peer support from people with similar life experiences — mental issues and substance abuse among them.

The shoe, Salerno says, symbolizes important things in both his own life and those he serves.

Recovery Innovations hired him in 2004. It was a bit of a risk. Back then, he was a man in his late 40s who had recently suffered a major mental breakdown, landing him in jail and costing him his previously good name.

In early 2002, Mark Salerno was a popular pediatrician with a flourishing solo practice in North Phoenix and a fine home in Carefree. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Salerno was indicted for stealing the car of someone he knew.

Soon after that, in an episode that nearly cost him his life, the doctor faked his own kidnapping and fled Arizona. Authorities rescued him from the trunk of his car (he had put himself in there) in San Diego three days later.

Later in 2002 came another flight, 16 days on the run shortly after being placed on probation for the bizarre stolen-car caper. That one ended in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, after Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio sternly told reporters that his agency would continue to search for Salerno "whether he is crazy or not."

Mean-spirited or just tactless, the sheriff was right about one thing: Dr. Salerno was not in his right mind during those dark times.

Yet here Salerno is, almost a decade later, nattily attired in a bright red vest and colorful striped tie, warming up this ribbon-cutting gathering with rim-shot one-liners and tales of hope and recovery in his unabashed New Jersey accent — gesturing with that funky black shoe.

The doctor first noticed the shoe on the roof over the building's entrance years earlier; it stayed put through brutal summers and chilly winters.

"It stands for the journey we've taken together," Salerno says, referring to Recovery Innovation's clients (the clinic calls them "guests"). "It represents the journey it took to get us here to this place, physically and figuratively."

One day during the recent construction, a worker happened to kick the shoe off the roof just as Salerno was standing there.

The doctor claimed it for his own.

"It's had a life, for sure," he says of the shoe.

So has Dr. Salerno.

Peoria police Lieutenant Rich Scrivens shakes the doctor's hand warmly after the presentation, as does Phoenix police officer Nick Margiotta, who heads his agency's Crisis Intervention Training Program (CIT).

"Mark has been there and back," Officer Margiotta says later. "He knows what it's like to be in trouble and not being able to think straight. And he knows it's possible to survive to see a better day."


Mark Salerno wasn't keen about telling his story for public consumption.

"I'm way past wanting to be asked, 'Aren't you the guy who staged his own kidnapping? Aren't you the guy who pissed off Joe Arpaio?'" he says. "That's not a legacy I'm interested in."

But the doctor warmed to the task, describing how he slipped into the abyss yet somehow found his way out of the darkness. He is an example of how mental illness doesn't have to be a lifelong jacket, and how someone can raise from the depths of despair and depression.

"An ounce of hope would have helped me back then," Salerno says. "I had no one tell me that eventually you can get through this and have a life, and you may have a better life than you ever imagined — a better personal life, better spiritual side, great meaning in your new work. It's not easy, but it can and does happen. I see it every day."

New Times first met Salerno, quite by chance, at a meeting of members of the local mental-health community and police.

That Valley mental-health counselors, cops, and even bureaucrats meet regularly these days to discuss their collective problems is a relatively new concept — and a necessary one.

These people labor in the state of Arizona, where policymakers endorse a grossly underfunded mental-health system, and where emergency rooms, homeless shelters and jails long have been the usual entry points for the deeply troubled — not crisis centers such as The Living Room.

"It used to be that we, as cops, used to automatically take people to jail or maybe do the old 'dump and run' at a psych unit someplace to get folks off our hands," Officer Margiotta says.

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25 comments
MichaelYevtuck
MichaelYevtuck

Mike Yevtuck

I am the God of the USA hells angels  I punish the  USA hells angels for their decades of crimes victimizing women and children.I punish the USA hells angels for the gangs continued support to ruin the American way of life. to this day The USA hells angels Still in 2013 continue to raise money to help USA Hells angels sex offenders and USA hells angels involved with child porn . 


  I would not call my hate for the filthy fowl flock of USA hells angels anger issues .  I call the hate I have for the USA hells angels justified 

I call what I do real street justice funny I wonder where chuck got that idea from  that coward chuck Zito wrote a book about street justice yet he is on the losing  team with  the cowards and punks of the USA hells angels who cover and give money to registered sex offenders and men involved with child porn.


The USA hells angels is the same as it always was filled without of shape  cowards who hide in the flock they USA hells angels still vote registered and unregistered sex offenders to fill the flocks USA leadership roles I guess ensuring the position of sex offenders and child porn transporters and collectors into the next century.

The punks commenting here using my name could be Chuck Zito Sonny Barger or any USA hells angels or a man that dates USA hells angels I may have beat up or smacked around in the past . USA hells angels know better to try to attack or kill me. This is all the USA hells angels can do with out risking their Life they hide type and libel me like the cowardly bitchs they are.

Aundi
Aundi

Dr. Salerno was a wonderful doctor and an awesome person. Mental illness can hit anyone at anytime. I am so glad he has overcome the darkness and is once again making great contributions. Thank you Dr. Salerno for touching my familys lift. I hope you continue on your road to recovery and I know you will make a differance in all the lives you touch.

Marianne
Marianne

First of all, It is a nice story. I just do not want folks with mental issues to think they can over come the illness. Mental illness is like having a substance abuse problem; yes one can stop drinking and doing drugs, however it is a day-to day struggle. Mental concerns is the same way, one would learn coping skills, find the correct medication for that time frame. One can hope to have a good doctor that will listen to your problems. Have a healthy eating habits, do some kind of excersize to help relive stress. A health belief in some type "Higher Power" often helps. True folks with mental issues do lead productive, happy lives. Even so, staying on the right kind of doseage of medication and support groups and even having some one that you can trust to talk to that can keep you on the right path. Changes in this world, is something that can not be ignored, with the proper tools one can deal better then before, however to say one is fully recovered from mental illness; without having to be concern of relapses due to triggers like hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and remembering negative things that cause the mind to breakdown, is false hope. Mental stigma has changed over the years, through education, postive stories, along with documentation and better medications. A person can be dry dock for 40 years, but let them get tigger some how and they take that drug or drink and it does not matter they are still concidered to have a substance abuse.

Walter Concrete
Walter Concrete

So, is this an excuse you're trying to use for not helping people with mental illnesses? Because if he can cure himself then anyone can? How about this one...if he can cure himself of his mental illness then maybe there's really no such thing and we can stop trying to help the 10 people per year who get services for it in this state. Think of all the money the politicians could siphon into their pockets.

Jenn Campbell
Jenn Campbell

Neat story, very inspiring on many levels to hear about someone who happens to be mentally ill who is on a journey of recovery and gets media attention for something good instead of the usual negative attention given to folks with mental illnesses by the media. Thanks for sharing this story, and I hope there are many more like it to follow!

dsgasgahasdh
dsgasgahasdh

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dsgasgahasdh
dsgasgahasdh

Hello, everybody, the good shoping place, the new season approaching, click in. Let's Facelift bar! ( http://fashion-long-4biz.com )Air Jordan (1-24) shoes $33 UGG BOOT $50 Nike shox (R4, NZ, OZ, TL1, TL2, TL3) $33 Handbags ( Coach Lv fendi D&G) $36 T-shirts (polo, ed hardy, lacoste) $16 Jean (True Religion, ed hardy, coogi)$30 Sunglasses ( Oakey, coach, Gucci, Armaini)$16 New era cap $16 ATO shoes $42 Gucci shoes $42 ,prada shoes $40 NBA jerseys $33 ,NHL jerseys $29 YSL shoes $85 Bikini (Ed hardy, polo) $18 Accept paypal payment, accept Credit card payments, electronic check payments. FREE SHIPPING ( http://fashion-long-4biz.com )

VongMee
VongMee

Now that dude has totally got game. WOw.

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A Parent
A Parent

It is my hope that some medical group will see this story and snatch Dr. Salerno up as fast as possible. He is a wonderful Pediatrician and he should be back in practice.

Shooter McGaven
Shooter McGaven

What an amazing story Paul, thanks for sharing it. Also HUGE thanks to the Doc for being brave enough to share this story. People who don't work in mental health, or have loved ones who are facing these issues don't understand, and this helps. It is easy to just lump everyone in a group and ignore them, and this man is a great example of why that is wrong. Best wishes.

MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

I bet he did alot of LSD and it made him go loco.

MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

He still has that weird strange far away look in his eyes I wouldn't trust him at all. I have that same look in my eyes and i know I am 100% mentally unstable and could cause harm to others. DTA = dont trust anyone.

PTCGAZ
PTCGAZ

I doubt that. Chemistry of our brains isn't understood. Chemical imbalances are common.

Broski Love
Broski Love

mike is right, once youve been to the darkside and back, you can easily get there again.

MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

Read the story again PTCGAZ stupid. it said he had a substance abuse problem years ago. and being he is from new jersey also in the story I bet he had a heroin problem like most druggies from new jersey and new york city have. the LSD thing was a joke. heroin and heroin use is all over back there in those parts. in the western USA the drug of choice is meth in the north east USA it is heroin and cocaine.

MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

I understand you PTCGAZ are about 33 years old and you are unemployed.

MIKE YEVTUCK
MIKE YEVTUCK

my lame online jokes are also misunderstood as fact when they are merely cheap jokes based on nothing other than pure idiocy.

SteveMuratore
SteveMuratore

Whether he has or has not had a drug problem is not the issue. Mental illness can come out of the blue. And people sometimes can emerge from it. Going through hard times can make it easier to understand what others deal with.

Nemo4mimo
Nemo4mimo

u have no way of knowing what he did since u dont know him. i do and he's a straight shooter with no drugs. there r people who just have a breakdown and i hope it never happens to u.

Grannie
Grannie

I guess you didn't read the article too well. It says, "In his case, substance abuse never was an issue," He had no drug problem. Instead of trying to find some fault in him, mybe you could GET the whole point of the article: People can and do heal and become fully well.

Guest
Guest

with a nasty attitude like that its no wonder you can get hired for a job. your mean an mentally unstable also.

Guest
Guest

your still unemployed GET A JOB!

PTCGAZ
PTCGAZ

wow you are also a piece of shit troll. Sometimes I wonder if all the people are trolls that make lame jokes and fail to understand logic.

 
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