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Mental health advocate Robert E. Davidson dies

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published March 19. 2014 4:00AM   Updated March 19. 2014 10:38AM
Robert E. Davidson

Norwich - The man who served for 14 years as the voice for the agency that calls itself "the citizen's voice in mental health policy" in eastern Connecticut died Monday after a months-long battle with brain cancer.

Robert E. Davidson, 65, of Norwich died Monday night at the Harrington Court nursing home in Colchester, his wife, Marge Blizard, said Tuesday.

Davidson served as executive director of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board Inc. from 1999 to his retirement in December due to his illness. With a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1980, Davidson had a lifelong career advocating equally for services and respect for people with mental illness both in the Midwest and in Connecticut.

Davidson served as regional director of quality assurance for the state Department of Mental Health from 1989 to 1991 and then worked for eight years as a case manager and later as director of the supported education program at Reliance House in Norwich before becoming executive director at the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board. The agency is responsible for evaluating state-funded mental health programs run by both state and nonprofit agencies throughout New London and Windham counties.

He was past president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was a board member of the Disabilities Network of Eastern Connecticut, Bethsaida Inc., and served for a time as chairman of the Norwich Community Care Team and the Mental Health Action Team. He served on several other advocacy organizations throughout the region.

Davidson not only became intimately familiar with the programs offered and the funding - or more poignantly, lack of adequate funding - but he also worked hands-on with many clients who used those services, people who worked closely with Davidson said Tuesday.

"He was one of the most brilliant, thoughtful, caring people this field has ever had as an advocate for people," said Lee Ann Gomes, supervisor of social work for Norwich Human Services, one of several agencies represented on the Community Care team. "He was passionate. Many of us got very frustrated, but Bob was always able to keep it focused on what the clients needed to have a fulfilling life."

Two of those clients, Vange Sergeant and Robbyn Sibley, said Tuesday that they will greatly miss getting "a Bob hug" when they needed one. The two Reliance House clients met Davidson in 2001 when he was giving a tour of the state Capitol and Legislative Office Building for mental health advocates in the "Keep the Promise" campaign to fight for community-based services.

Now roommates in Montville, Sibley and Sergeant described their lives as "a nightmare" before they received mental health services. Sibley said she suffered from bipolar disorder and borderline post-traumatic stress disorder after the death of her mother, whom she had cared for during her last two years of life.

"Without Bob, we wouldn't have survived," Sibley said. "He just got us through everything."

Davidson used his characteristic smile, writing skills and a knack for both humor and satire to get his point across to many audiences. He testified numerous times to state officials and wrote newspaper opinion pieces about the state's failed promise to provide community-based services to people with mental illness after former Gov. John G. Rowland closed Norwich Hospital and Fairfield Hills inpatient facilities in 1996.

"He had a way of making his point stick out and be memorable," said Jennifer Gross, Davidson's successor at the eastern regional board. "He was a bit irreverent at times, but who could forget that?"

In 2001, a year after the July 2000 state Blue Ribbon Commission on Mental Illness report, Davidson dressed in a body-length blue ribbon wrapped in red tape to testify to state legislators on the failed promise to provide adequate community-based services.

Laughter filled the hearing room as Davidson, speaking in first person as the ribbon, described his birth, and mentoring by "Uncle John," but then was hindered. He cited a yearly cap placed on funding assistance to clients.

"How can I tell someone 'you got sick too late in the year?'" Davidson said.

Davidson penned many skits performed by the Second Step Players satirizing the plight of underfunded agencies and dilemmas faced by clients.

A skit called "Budget Strategy" opened with several state bureaucrats planning how to cut the state Department of Mental Health Services budget.

"What happened to you? Plastic surgery go bad?" one said to another.

"No," the other replied. "When my program was cut, I lost my identity. Now I'm just a faceless bureaucrat."

Later, one bureaucrat suggested replacing police crisis intervention training used to quell volatile situations with "electroconvulsive therapy" - Tasers.

That skit's message hit home for Davidson in June 2012, when right outside the door of his Cedar Street home in Norwich, a distraught 19-year-old man sat on the hood of his mother's car in a loud plea that since he had fixed the car, he should be allowed to use it. Davidson called police and specifically asked for a crisis intervention trained officer.

Instead, Davidson wrote in an op-ed published in The Day on June 8, 2012, one responding officer immediately yelled at the man to get off the car and two officers grabbed him and forced him into the cruiser after using a Taser to subdue him. He was charged with breach of peace and assault on a police officer.

Davidson argued that a crisis intervention officer could have tried talking to the man to persuade him to get off the car to allow his mother to drive to work.

"An angry kid is not a criminal," Davidson wrote. "Let's not make him one if we don't have to."

Blizard said her husband had the ability to keep a level head during emotional and frustrating situations, whether on the street or in Hartford.

"Bob was a very modest person," his wife said. "He never realized the influence he had. He never thought he was successful."

Gross, the new executive director at the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, wanted to make sure Davidson knew the impact he had made while he still had some faculties. Grateful that Davidson saved everything - testimony, skits, op-ed pieces, certificates of appreciation, a poem to his wife and even "that famous blue ribbon costume" - Gross assembled a large scrapbook she presented to Davidson and Blizard at a gala retirement party that overfilled the conference room at the Southeast Mental Health Authority.

"Robert E. Davidson," the colorful cover page read. "Advocate Extraordinaire."

Blizard and Gross also launched "The Robert E. Davidson Fund," which will support programs and projects throughout the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board's service area that will promote independent living by mental health clients, community education about behavioral health problems and advocate for mental health clients and their families.

"I want to see this fund make a permanent difference," Blizard said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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How to help

The Robert E. Davidson Fund is being held by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut. Donation checks should be made payable to CFECT, with "Davidson Fund" written on the memo line and sent to CFECT, 68 Federal St., New London, CT 06320.

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