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Man battles own mental illness, wins leadership prize

GEORGE RIZER/GLOBE STAFFJon Delman and his wife, Deborah, after learning that he won a prestigious award for people who ''conquer huge obstacles'' and take action on healthcare issues. He is the founder of an agency that helps people with mental illness. GEORGE RIZER/GLOBE STAFFJon Delman and his wife, Deborah, after learning that he won a prestigious award for people who ''conquer huge obstacles'' and take action on healthcare issues. He is the founder of an agency that helps people with mental illness. (GEORGE RIZER/GLOBE STAFF)
By Carey Goldberg
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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Muddied and panting, Jonathan Delman pelted through the forest "like a banshee, like there was no tomorrow."

Behind him was McLean Hospital in Belmont, where the staff wanted to hold him against his will. Another stay in a mental hospital, he felt, would unravel the life he had begun to put back together. He zigzagged between brush and trees to leave no clear tracks.

This was the climax in a series of psychiatric implosions that had landed Delman in hospitals, driven away girlfriends, stymied his attempts to find work as a lawyer, and left him feeling lost and often suicidal. What kept him alive, he believes, was what powered that escape: "Grit and determination against all odds."

That wild woodland run happened just about a decade ago. Last week, Delman received one of the nation's most prestigious awards for community health work: a $125,000 leadership prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The award honors people who "conquer huge obstacles and take commanding action in local communities" on healthcare issues.

Delman, who is 49 and lives in Stoneham, founded and runs Consumer Quality Initiatives, a groundbreaking Boston agency staffed mainly by people with mental illness. They survey other people who receive mental health services from the state and analyze the data for ways to make improvements. The group, for example, identified problems encountered by young people who "age out" of the state's mental health system for children, work that contributed to significant changes, including a $3 million program to help with the transition to the adult system.

Given the stigma that mental illness still carries, and the traditional dominance of academics in research, Delman has had to fight long and hard for his group to gain legitimacy, said Marylou Sudders, the former state commissioner of mental health, who has known Delman since the mid-'90s.

"If he ever has any doubt about himself, which he shouldn't have, getting a Robert Wood Johnson award is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," she said.

Delman's bipolar disorder has not disappeared. He still takes six psychiatric medications a day, three for sleep. But he has been able to build his recovery on two of the central pillars of many lives: work and love.

"It's hard to recover from where I was - on Social Security disability, with serious mental illness, hospitalized numerous times, down in the dumps and facing so many barriers," he said. "I was able to overcome those barriers because of advantages in my life - family and education - and my own intense desire to overcome them, and finally, my loving relationship with my wife, and a job."

All around him, Delman said in an interview, he sees people in positions similar to his a decade ago caught in the Catch 22 that because they have a mental illness, they cannot get the work and support that would help them overcome it. "I see a lot of unrealized potential and it makes me very sad," he said.

Despite Delman's bipolar disorder, he graduated from Tufts University summa cum laude and from law school at the University of Pennsylvania. But after his crises and hospitalizations began in his thirties, he found it impossible to get work as a lawyer, even when he was functioning well. He "came out" as a person with mental illness in the mid-1990s, as he sought to fight discrimination and educate others about their employment rights.

Around that time, he met his future wife, Deborah, who is also a leading Massachusetts advocate for people with mental illness. She had mixed feelings about him, Deborah Delman said; he had not been working, and as a single mother, she could not support both him and her son, Pete. As Jonathan Delman tells it, his temper also put her off.

But he was great with Pete, and they worked shoulder to shoulder toward their common causes for many months. One day, at a table at a Bickford's restaurant in Waltham, he was confessing his love for her - not for the first time - and she reached across the table, tears welling up in her eyes, and took his hand.

To her own shock, she said, "I love you."

"It was the greatest moment in my life," Jonathan Delman said.

Since his McLean escape soon before they married, "I have not been back to a hospital," Delman said. "And I will never go back to a hospital."

But what he learned as a psychiatric patient now informs Delman's work in helping others.

For example, he said, he experienced first-hand how arbitrary rules or petty cruelties by hospital staff can demoralize and alienate patients. Patients can feel that if they complain, they risk retribution, and nothing will change anyway.

So when his agency began to survey psychiatric patients in hospitals, it asked about staff-and-patient interactions. It also asked about other issues that can deeply affect patients: Were they treated with respect and dignity? Did they have needed privacy? Did they have access to a telephone?

Or consider psychiatric medications. The antidepressant Zoloft helped Delman, but when he was hospitalized in the mid-1990s, he was abruptly taken off it without being consulted, and put on another medication that made him physically ill. He felt like a zombie for months, until he finally asked to be put back on his previous medications and greatly improved.

These days, Consumer Quality Initiatives is working on a project to give consumers decision-making tools to help them have more input into their prescriptions, including guidance on which websites have the best medical information. Some of his prize money will go toward that project, Delman said.

"A lot of the work Jon has done has changed thousands of people's lives in Massachusetts, but they don't know Jon was part of it," said Alisa K. Lincoln, an associate professor of health sciences and sociology at Northeastern University, who has worked with Delman for years and nominated him for the prize.

Delman began by focusing on giving consumers more voice in the treatments they received, but he is focusing increasingly on dragging academic research out of the Ivory Tower and orienting it more toward changing the real world.

Delman is also working at Boston University's School of Public Health toward a health services research doctorate, which he is on track to receive in 2010. That leaves little free time, but he has no complaints - quite the opposite: "I love responsibility," he said. "It was when I didn't have it that I felt depressed."

Carey Goldberg can be reached at goldberg@globe.com.

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