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Behind a senator's mental health advocacy, a private family battle

As Sen. Darrell Steinberg became the face of mental health advocacy, his family fought a private battle

I first got to know state Sen. Darrell Steinberg almost 10 years ago, through his crusade to lend a hand to the mentally ill, many of whom suffer on skid rows and in jail cells because of decades of shameful public policy failures.

I came to see him over time as both deeply compassionate and clear-thinking. Once, on a bus tour of mental health agencies in Los Angeles, when I told Steinberg how I worried that my friend Nathaniel might never get help for his schizophrenia if he wasn't legally forced to do so, Steinberg argued that we first needed to get some long-overdue services in place before rounding people up against their will.

I shared with him Nathaniel's continued ups and downs over the years, and Steinberg shared his joy at seeing the benefits of the Mental Health Services Act he championed in 2004, as well as his frustrations over the remaining challenges.

What I didn't know was that even as Steinberg was the public face of mental health advocacy, he and his wife were struggling through an agonizing private battle to help their daughter cope with severe mental illness.

"I never spoke publicly about Jordana, and for good reason," Steinberg said. "She was a minor, and it was not my place."

But Jordana, now 20 and in recovery, recently decided it was time to break the silence, and she talked extensively about the family's ordeal to Sacramento Bee reporter Cynthia H. Craft, for a story that ran last week. Jordana, a Sierra College student, says she decided to go public to help destigmatize mental illness.

And the reaction from her dad, the outgoing Senate president pro tem?

Steinberg told me that he and his wife, Julie, were supportive, nervous and proud.

"This was her decision as a young adult," he said, and she did it for the sake of others.

Steinberg said his advocacy predates Jordana's descent into severe mood swings and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder at age 7. As a city councilman in the 1990s, he was already making the connection between homelessness and untreated mental illness. Jordie, as he calls his daughter, was just 4 when he decided to make mental health his top legislative priority.

"I think what it did was deepen my commitment," Steinberg said, to building a system in which everyone who needs help has access to it.

Last week, by phone, Jordie told me about her worst and most terrifying bouts of illness.

"I remember knowing I was different when I was really young," she said. "When I tried to interact with people my own age I was inadequate, like something about me was off."

To her parents, she was explosive and combative, but they didn't know the cause was mental illness.

As a teenager, Jordie said, "I used to argue with my parents, and they would tell me my reaction was a little too over the top."

Her first hospitalization came at 13, but Jordie got no better. In a heart-breaking choice, the Steinbergs sent her to a boarding school in Oregon, but that was a disaster. Jordie destroyed as much property as she could, landing in juvenile hall in under two days.

"I remember thinking, 'They lock up real criminals who've done really bad things,' and ... when they were watching me, I saw fear in their eyes," Jordie said of her guards. "And I thought maybe I should take a look at myself.... That was rock bottom, by far."

Her next stop was a locked psychiatric facility in Texas, where heavy doses of medication calmed her enough to be relocated to a less restrictive treatment center in Utah. Later, she moved on to a program closer to home.

There, a doctor determined she had disruptive mood dysregulation disorder instead of bipolar disease, and Jordie improved greatly in a highly structured environment, graduating at 18 and moving on to college.

Today, Jordie is off medication and enjoying school, and she believes the worst is behind her. In that sense, she's lucky, because many people never break free of the punishing grip of mental illness. Jordie said she regrets what she put her family through, and feels as though she stole her younger brother's childhood.

Jordie said she has known about her father's mental health advocacy for years, and she recalls him telling her she shouldn't feel alone because mental illness afflicts millions.

"It made me feel really accepted, without knowing any of these other people," Jordie said.

She says that wanting to reach out to all the others figured into her decision to tell her story. And she is considering a career in mental health.

"I want to work with teenagers," she said, "because that's one of the hardest times in life anyway, and when you have a mental illness, there's so much stigma."

Sen. Steinberg said the reaction to the story has been amazing, with lots of thank-yous, offers of moral support and queries from people trying to find the right help for loved ones.

"It's a gift," Steinberg said of his daughter's decision to speak up. "The fact that Jordie's doing so well — not cured, but doing so well — shows that the only reason to tell a story this personal and this painful is to give hope to others who are dealing with this. Because when you're in the middle of it, you don't think there's hope."

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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