Catherine Bond, L.A.'s champion of self-help for the mentally ill, dies at 79

Catherine Bond was a licensed marriage and family therapist when she had her first psychotic break. Her training did not protect her from relapsing into bipolar disorder.

But the recurrences didn’t stop her from becoming one of California’s leading mental health advocates and an early champion of peer support groups and the recovery treatment model.

“She was a leader and spokesperson for clients, who also embodied recovery in her own life,” said USC social work professor Marvin Southard, former director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Bond died Aug. 31 in a Los Angeles area hospital of complications from an illness. She was 79.

Bond earned her marriage and family therapy credential in 1975 after studying under Virginia Satir, an internationally known expert on family mental health.

She started what she later described as a highly lucrative business training other people to pass the licensing test. But after a suicide attempt landed her in a psychiatric unit for six weeks, Bond tried what she called a “geographic solution” to her disorder, moving to Boston, and eventually South Korea and Thailand, to teach English.

“What happened for the next 17 years or so was that I would work for a while and do pretty well and not take medication and not get therapy and not have support groups and try to be the lone ranger,” Bond said in an oral history for a UCLA website on the history of mental health in California. “And I would eventually end up overworking, overstressing, becoming irrational, and finally, ending up in a hospital.”

With a break in 1999, she returned to the U.S. and lived in the streets of Santa Monica for six months.

“I lost everything. I lost my luggage — I basically walked away from it because I was so completely into my delusional state, and found myself on the street in Santa Monica,” Bond said in the oral history. “And so I was convinced that it was meant to be, it was all very symbolic, full-circle. Except I was at the bottom not the top.”

A shelter referred her to a mental health clinic in West Los Angeles, where she was offered what she later said had been missing from her earlier treatment: The psychiatrist said she could get better, and she offered her choices.

“She didn’t just say, [tapping the table with each point], ‘Take the lithium, that’s what you need to take, you’re going to be chronically ill for the rest of your life, lithium’s the only thing that’s going to help you, take the lithium,’ ” Bond told the UCLA interviewer. “She said, ‘Look, [this] stuff doesn’t always work for everybody. Here are some other options.’ ”

Bond trained hundreds of people in peer support, self-help groups based on 12-step principles that are now mainstream in the mental health field. She was an important figure in easing Los Angeles County’s shift from the medical model to a recovery approach, which she defined in her oral history: “If the recovery model says you can get well and stay well, the medical model says you can get stable if you take medication and do what we tell you to do.”

She also taught clients to develop advanced directives featuring friends or other peers to call on in a crisis to avoid hospitalization.

In the UCLA interview, Bond explained why peers can be more helpful than professionals: “I can take you in my car because I don’t have some kind of liability with some kind of place that says you can’t drive somebody. I can go with you for a walk around the block and not worry that if you trip and I pick you up, that you’re gonna sue me. … I can sit with you at night at 3 a.m.”

Her positions included training coordinator for the Project Return Peer Support Network, training director for Mental Health America of Los Angeles and director at the California Network of Mental Health Clients in Sacramento, a consumer-run advocacy group. She also headed the consumer affairs department at county mental health.

Southard said Bond was a role model for mental health consumers because of and not despite her setbacks. With her training and personal experience, she was equally at home with homeless people and psychiatrists. Southard said Bond persuaded him to drop county rules punishing clients who relapsed into substance abuse.

“She was willing to stand up as a mental health professional and say she had a mental health illness,” said Ruth Hollman, executive director of Share self-help support groups and collaborative housing for mental health consumers.

“She could always see the diamond in the rough and inspire people to believe they could be someone more than a person with mental illness, and accomplish things in their lives,” said David A. Pilon, president of Mental Health America of Los Angeles.

Still, she reduced but could not eliminate her manic breaks and lapses into homelessness, friends said.

“It wasn’t because she wasn’t taking medication. She was under the care of doctors. It just would happen,” Hollman said. “At one point, she was staying at a friend’s condo and she starting selling things from the condo to get more money to buy things to do with. Once they’d get her stabilized again, she would be incredibly upset about what had happened.”

She also would return to advocacy and training.

“She was really quite striking — the number of times she struggled and was able to reconstitute herself and go back to work,” Pilon said.

gholland@latimes.com

Twitter: @geholland

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