Bob Davidson's goal in life was to reduce the stigma suffered by people with mental illness, and help them get the support they needed — preferably in a community setting with housing, peer support and counseling.
He spoke frequently at the state legislature and wrote op-ed pieces for newspapers around the state, and his encouragement helped many people in recovery express themselves at legislative hearings.
Robert E. Davidson, 65, died of brain cancer on March 17. He had lived in Norwich, with his wife, Marjorie Blizard.
Davidson, who was born on Sept. 16, 1948, grew up in Baltimore. As a young man, Davidson was exposed to the progressive views of his father, Dr. Nachman Davidson, an allergist who was interested in psychosomatic illnesses, and his mother, Betty, a social worker. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where he majored in sociology and graduated in 1970.
He opposed the war in Vietnam, but feared that his application for conscientious objector might be rejected because his father and his brother had been in the service. He was 6-foot-2, and he deliberately cut back his food intake until he was considered too thin to be drafted, leaving him constantly hungry, his sister said, and existing on cold cereal. He frequently spoke and demonstrated against the war, and spent a year caring for his mother when she was ill.
Davidson obtained a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1980, taught for a few years, then received a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he worked in a mental health center and decided to make community mental health treatment his life's work.
He came to Connecticut to work at Norwich State Hospital in 1989. It was operated by the state Department of Mental Health as it was discharging patients from the hospital into the community amid promises to provide sufficient alternatives to hospitalization. Those in the mental health community thought that the promised programs and services were never properly provided.
Davidson later became part of Keep the Promise Coalition, which advocates for greater availability and access to mental health services. The group advocated for more services, saying it would reduce visits to emergency rooms, decrease homelessness, and keep people with mental illness out of jail.
In 1991, he began work as a case manager at Reliance House in Norwich, which provides many programs for people with mental disabilities, but there never seemed to be sufficient money to provide all the services that were needed. Davidson developed a close relationship with local police and court officials in order to help some of his clients who violated the law by talking back or failing to understand what they were being asked.
"He ran interference," his wife said. "He could get people to appear on time, or intercede, and get them out of the legal justice system, and get them the services they needed."
He also advocated for crisis intervention training for police officers so they would understand mental health crises rather than simply arrest someone who was acting out. He supported the work of the Second Step Players, a group of people with mental illness who were musicians or actors, and wrote satirical skits for them.
At a zoning hearing on a proposal for housing for homeless women, he testified in favor of the project — and met his future wife.
In 1999, Davidson became the director of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, which evaluates state-funded mental health programs and provides information about mental illness to the public. In that role, he could intercede for clients, try to resolve problems and make recommendations to the commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services on the quality of the programs.
He retired in 2013 when he became ill.
Davidson was a familiar face in the General Assembly, where he frequently testified on legislation that would affect his vulnerable clients. Realizing that finding the right medication is a lengthy process, he asked the legislature to allow Medicaid pay for brand-name drugs, not generics, if the more expensive drug worked better.
He was a mentor to mental health clients, and would help them prepare testimony to the legislature.
"Their personal stories have a great impact, and he was a great advocate of people telling their stories," said Doreen Del Bianco, legislative program manager at the DMHAS.
Articulate, with a deep, calm voice, and a measured cadence, Davidson was an excellent speaker.
"He could explain very complicated topics that made it understandable to lay people," said his wife, Marjorie.
He also used humor in his presentations: At one hearing, his face was framed by a ruffle of blue satin, which he used to represent a Blue Ribbon Commission that was supposed to map out a comprehensive support system for clients discharged from hospitals — but had not done so.
Part of his mission was to help the public understand the many problems people with mental illness face: the lack of transportation that makes it difficult to keep appointments; the lack of supported housing; the long waits for clinic appointments; the lengthy time on hold that quickly eats into the telephone's pre-paid "minutes."
He also fought to retain measures that would decrease stigma, such as the right to establish group homes, or that would strengthen privacy rights of people who were mentally ill.
"Bob understood people's struggles," said Cathy Ferry, executive director of the Disabilities Network of Connecticut. "He thought the world was big enough for everyone."
"He worked on just about every level of the system," said Ronna Keil, director of the Office of Recovery Community Affairs at DMHAS. "He knew who to call and had a relationship with them. Everyone knew Bob Davidson and respected him."
In addition to his wife and sister, Louise Davidson, he is survived by a brother, Stephen, and many nieces and nephews.
At his funeral, the most moving tributes were given by people who were in recovery from serious mental illness.
"I am here, and I can do this, because of Bob Davidson," said one. "He believed in me."Copyright © 2015, CT Now