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.)

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin