Richard Van Horn, episcopal priest who revolutionized California’s approach to mental illness, dies at 81



Richard Van Horn, the episcopal priest who helped revolutionize California’s approach to mental illness and became a staunch and skillful advocate for the mentally ill, has died at his home in Los Angeles.

Van Horn died on June 15 at the age of 81, his stepson Mark Slavkin said.

For more than 30 years, Van Horn has played a leading role in efforts to improve the lot of the mentally ill. (He preferred the term “consumers” to “patients” or “mentally ill.”) He oversaw the development of recovery-oriented programs – considered radical at the time but which became role models in the United States. and in other countries. He worked with state lawmakers to pass a series of measures and was a major force behind the creation of the California Mental Health Services Act, approved as Proposition 63 by voters in 2004.

“It would be impossible to overstate the huge positive impact that Richard has had on the public mental health system in California and, by extension, across the country,” said David Pilon, a psychologist who worked with Van Horn to create the Village Integrated Services Agency, a pioneering program in Long Beach in 1990.

“He was the movement’s resource person to help the most vulnerable among us – people with severe mental illness – to be welcomed and included in our communities,” said Pilon.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, as a Democratic state legislator in the 1990s and early 2000s, worked closely with Van Horn to create and pass several important reform and reform bills. mental health funding, and later on Proposition 63.

“He was a very nice person, but he was tough,” Steinberg recalled in a recent interview. “His job was really to see every human being as unique, special and worthy of being helped. He pushed very, very hard, and thank goodness for that!

Van Horn was born in Arcadia on September 19, 1939, to Harlan, a banker, and Evelyn Van Horn, a teacher who quit her job to stay at home with her son, and later, a daughter. His father died when Richard was 16 and his mother returned to work to support the family. His childhood asthma kept him from being as active as other boys, but he did well in school. He was baptized into the Episcopal Church during his final year at Arcadia High School, and after graduating in 1957, he entered Harvard.

He had wanted to become a lawyer, but became more involved in the church while in college and began to see the priesthood as the best way to be of service to others. After graduating from Harvard, he spent a year in Japan teaching English on an episcopal mission, then returned to the United States to enter seminary. He was ordained a priest in 1965 but soon discovered that he “was not really made to be a parish priest,” Van Horn recalled a few years ago in an oral history interview with the Semel Institute of the UCLA.

Van Horn joined the bishop’s staff and quickly became a volunteer for the agency that would provide the framework for his work, the Mental Health Assn., Now known as Mental Health America of Los Angeles. He joined the agency’s board of directors in 1976 and in 1980 became its senior executive, a position he held for nearly 30 years. After his retirement, he served on its board of directors.

As CEO, Van Horn has brought together patients, their families, mental health professionals and advocates to form a powerful voice. He brought 5,000 people to the State Capitol on buses in the mid-1980s, when Governor Deukmejian called for drastic cuts to public funds for mental health.

For the oral history project, Van Horn recounted a conversation he had with the Los Angeles County Administrative Director, who asked the Oversight Board to cut mental health services to help balance the budget. Both men knew Van Horn could “fill the boardroom on 24 hours’ notice” with protesters, making elected supervisors look bad in the media coverage.

“I just sat down with [him] and said, ‘Look, we’re going to be here every week until this matter is settled, so why don’t we have a deal? You won’t try to reduce sanity and we won’t flood the boardroom and embarrass everyone.

They struck a deal that largely spared mental health services.

Mental Health America of Los Angeles has also sponsored innovations to provide integrated services and help clients have as much control over their lives as their illness allows. Project Return and other programs were employed by the Village, which provided a range of services, a sort of one-stop shopping experience that quickly became the model for programs across California and soon, in the whole world.

Van Horn “pioneered the recovery model of providing mental health services, widely used across the country today,” said Christina Miller, the organization’s current president and CEO, in a press release.

“He was truly an incredible leader in so many ways,” said psychiatrist Mark Ragins, Village medical director from 1990 to 2017. “Honestly, I don’t think there would have been a Proposition 63 / Mental Health Services Act. without him. “

Van Horn married Kay Slavkin in 1986, the second marriage for the two. They met while she was on a county mental health advisory board. He continued to serve in his church, St. Mary’s, and occasionally officiated at baptisms, funerals and wedding ceremonies, including the nuptials of his step-granddaughter Samantha.

He continued to advise on mental health advocacy issues almost until his death, according to Slavkin, a former Los Angeles school board member.

“He was a unique combination of moral authority, political expertise and political acumen,” Slavkin said.

Besides Slavkin, Van Horn is survived by his son Kinter Van Horn; stepson Todd Slavkin; step-grandchildren Max, Samantha, Eli, Maya and Cameron; and a step-great-grandson, Noah.

Merl is a former Times writer.

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