He Empathizes Because He’s Been There

Paul J. Dobyns, who is paralyzed from the chest down, said he can be empathetic in working with mental patients because he knows, firsthand, about their problems.

Seated in a wheelchair in his Fullerton home, Dobyns calmly talked about a time when his physical handicap affected his mental state. “I went into a long period of depression,” Dobyns said.

“After my diving accident in 1982, there was a long period when I didn’t even want to get out of bed.”

Today, Dobyns, 39, is an active, highly praised volunteer worker for the Mental Health Assn. of Orange County. Once a week he leads a discussion group of former mental patients who are working to re-enter the everyday world. The self-help groups, called Project Return, are sponsored by the Mental Health Assn.


“I volunteered to work with the Mental Health Association because my (academic) background is in psychology,” Dobyns said. A 1970 Servite High grad, he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Cal State Fullerton in 1975.

As for his current volunteer work, he said: “My motivation was a little selfish, I guess. I thought that getting involved in other people’s problems would be a good way of getting out of my own skin. And, yes, it worked. I now feel a lot better about myself and my situation.”

Dobyns is a quadriplegic with partial use of his arms. He became paralyzed in 1982 while taking a psychiatric-care group for a swim at Diver’s Cove in Laguna Beach.

“I was working at the time as an aide at a psychiatric hospital, and this was an outing for some of the adolescents,” Dobyns said. “I dove off a rocky outcropping into the water and hit the sandy bottom.”


The accident shattered Dobyns’ life, as well as his spinal cord. He was only 30 at the time--a young psychology professional, on his way up, working on his master’s degree. After the accident, he had to adjust to pain--both mental and physical--and life in a wheelchair.

Dobyns said volunteer work has been a great therapy for him. He said that when he meets with former mental patients in Project Return, he reaches out to them. “If I see someone coming in and they look uncomfortable and shy, I try to pay attention to them and make them feel at ease,” he said. “I also try to initiate a little humor every now and then.”

Barbara Gerber, the Mental Health Assn.'s coordinator for Project Return, said that Dobyns is an exceptionally effective volunteer. “Paul is very friendly and draws people out,” Gerber said. “During group discussions, he looks for common themes, such as loneliness, and then he looks for possible solutions. He’s very skilled.”

Dobyns shrugs off such praise. He said he feels enriched in helping others who have had mental problems.


“I know the situation with depression,” Dobyns said. “I can empathize.”

Paul J. Dobyns, 39

Organization: Mental Health Assn. of Orange County

Address: 820 Town & Country Road, Orange, Calif. 92668. (714) 547-7559