The Loss of Two Old Friends

Posted on September 19, 2016 by Kenneth J. Dudek

In the last month, Fountain House and the clubhouse community lost two remarkable individuals --Denise Hast and JJ Govan. They were each special in their own way. And neither should have died so young. It is one thing to hear the statistic that people with mental illness die on average 10 -15 years earlier than the general population. It is quite another when they are your friends. Both JJ and Denise were only 65 years old.

Denise came to us from her beloved Worcester, Massachusetts and Genesis Club where she was an active member and a Board Member. She is best known for her international work, both as a consultant and coordinator, preparing members to travel around the world to meet with those interested in growing our movement. She joined Fountain House and replaced her Genesis community with a New York one. She joined the Training Team and immediately bonded with the Director of the Fountain House Center for Leadership and Education Alan Doyle. She and Alan talked and planned endlessly and creatively to impact the lives of members everywhere. There was nothing that made Denise happier than being in the middle of a political discussion - clubhouse politics and real politics. She was a good listener with strong opinions which she was happy to share if you asked. She improved the lives of people with mental illness around the world. She was my hero.

JJ was also a force of nature which, if you visited Fountain House over the last forty years, you probably encountered. He was the man at the front door who greeted you with a joke and a smile. He was a natural born showman who loved music and dancing. One of his favorite lines was, “You got jokes!” Translation: it’s not funny. He was a child of the sixties and loved the music of that time - especially the OJ’s. I heard one of their old songs on the radio last week ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and I can just hear him singing it now. He was always dropping names and telling stories about meeting big stars, like Beyonce or Prince, while doing his security work. To this day, I have no idea if the stories are true, but they are great stories.

Unfortunately, when I think of JJ and Denise today my positive memories are tainted with painful ones regarding the poor quality of their healthcare. I can’t help but recall how JJ was in and out of emergency rooms and doctors’ offices for years because his mental illness prevented him from being taken seriously. Doctors never looked for his cancer until it was too late. It’s a common practice called “diagnostic overshadowing.” This angers and saddens me because I know it happens to millions of people with mental illness all over the world. It also galvanizes me to move forward with the work we started doing with the World Health Organization two years ago.

JJ and Denise are the reason why Fountain House entered into this partnership with WHO to create guidelines and best practices for healthcare providers to prevent the early mortality of people with serious mental illness. My friends deserve better. People living with serious mental illness everywhere deserve better. We must stop this injustice. Dr. Ralph Aquila and I will be in Geneva next month at the mhGap conference on World Mental Health Day speaking about our partnership and about the integrated approach to primary, psychiatric and behavioral health that we pioneered years ago. I am looking forward to our presentation because I will be giving it in honor of JJ and Denise; and I will be demanding that human beings be seen as more than their mental health diagnoses and that they receive quality healthcare in a timely manner.

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