‘Divine intervention’: Terry Russell reflects on 50 years of service to mental health in Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Toward the end of his older brother’s life, Terry Russell said his schizophrenic sibling waited for the day his Social Security check came in the mail, claimed a spot at a White Castle on the Columbus’ west side, and ordered coffee for anyone who came through the door.

“He’d buy coffee for everybody there all day just to have somebody talk to him,” Russell, 75, of West Jefferson, said. “But he did that because he was so lonely. Because you lose all your friends – many people lose their families.”

Although the schizophrenic symptoms of his brother John subsided when he turned 57, Russell, who’s retiring as the executive director of Ohio’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in June, said his family was often ostracized by those who didn’t understand mental illness .

When Russell was 13 years old, he said he got off the school bus to the sight of police cars on the street and the sound of his mother crying in her bedroom. The police, he said, were taking John to a state hospital.

“I think at 13, that was when God put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You need to go into this (mental health) business because it is awful,’” Russell said. “I mean, it really is awful because nobody knows how to deal with it.”

It was the “divine intervention” that came with his brother’s illness, Russell said, that inspired him to pursue a 50-year career advocating for mental health care in Ohio – that has spanned from being the youngest director of a multi-county mental health board at 29 years old to help thousands of Ohioans living with chronic mental illness find rehab centers and avoid incarceration.

Terry Russell sits at his desk while serving as a director of Clark County’s Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health (ADAMH) Board.

Russell’s five-decade career earned the spotlight in Gov. Mike DeWine’s State of the State address last week, where DeWine touted Russell as his “long-time friend.”

“I have met no stronger advocate for those suffering from mental illness and their families – the ‘real heroes,’ as Terry calls them,” DeWine said during his speech.

“He is the one who takes the phone call from the desperate mother whose son is getting out of prison and doesn’t have anywhere to go,” former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton said. “He’s the one who deals with the pain, the suffering, and it weighs on him, but he translates that into passionate advocacy.”

After serving four years in the military and earning his Masters of Social Work from Ohio State University in 1972, Russell said former Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes appointed him to Clark County’s Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health (ADAMH) Board.

Under Russell’s leadership, the board became a conglomerate, serving residents of Clark, Greene and Madison counties at its location in Springfield, he said.

In 1998, Russell announced his so-called retirement from ADAMH after 23 years, but eight days later, he said he accepted a position as executive director of NAMI Ohio, a non-profit on Columbus’ west side that advocates for mental health-related legislation and provides resources to those living with mental illness.

“We say around here, ‘You don’t get better if you don’t have a roof over your head, food in your belly, and somebody knows your name,’” he said. “That’s a fact. You just don’t get better, none of us do. And so NAMI has been screaming for years for that chronic population that really has no voice.”

Cheri Walter, CEO of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, said Russell was a stalwart in developing the Adam-Amanda Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in Athens County, a 16-bed residential facility for patients discharged from Appalachian Behavioral Health.

“As people came out of a state hospital or residential setting, they needed a step-down facility to go to before going back to the community,” Walter said.

Named after two people in their 20s who died of suicide just days after being released from a state hospital, Russell said he raised $1.4 million in three months for the development of the Adam-Amanda facility, where patients can stay for up to 50 days – as opposed to Appalachian Behavioral Health’s seven-day limit – to stabilize themselves.

While Russell said more long-term residential facilities are in the works, including a center in Toledo thanks to a $2 million allocation from US Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), he said the state’s six psychiatric hospitals also need attention.

The state hospitals, he said, largely house those involved in the criminal justice system who may be deemed incompetent to stand trial, but there’s rarely space for patients who haven’t been charged with a crime.

Russell said that if his brother – who was in and out of the state hospital on civil commitments from a probate court judge – was still alive today, police officers would likely take him to jail.

“They wouldn’t take him to the state hospital, they’d take him to jail,” Russell said. “You can’t get somebody into the hospital because they’re full.”

Stratton – who described the working relationship between her and Russell as the “yin and the yang” – also said Russell was instrumental in advocating for law enforcement training on interacting with those dealing with a mental illness.

When Justice Stratton and Russell first pushed for Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), she said about 100 officers were trained. Today, more than 14,000 police officers and over 5,000 others – like dispatchers and court security guards – have received formal CIT training, she said.

“He can be a bulldog – which I love about him, he can really push – but I’ve never had any dispute with him in the whole time I’ve worked with him,” Stratton said.

Russell’s advocacy extended to expanding mental health programs in Ohio prisons, according to Tom Stickrath, director of the Department of Public Safety, who described Russell as an “icon” who brought to the forefront the intersection between criminal justice and mental health.

With a high percentage of youth with behavioral problems entering correctional facilities during Stickrath’s time at the Ohio Department of Youth Services, he said he viewed Russell as an advisor he could always lean on to more effectively support juveniles diagnosed with mental illness.

“The style in which he did it, he wasn’t banging your door down — he could get a little loud when he had to, but he was factual, knowledgeable and he was an influencer,” Stickrath said. “And somebody that was hard to say no to.”

As Russell prepares to retire from NAMI Ohio, the family name won’t be going too far, as he’s passing the executive director torch to his son, Luke Russell.

Currently the deputy director of NAMI Ohio, Luke Russell said he’ll always remember driving with his dad – and kids from a behavioral health group home – to Kings Island when he was six or seven years old.

“His motto, if I had to say something, was always for the underdog, you know, pushing for the people who need it,” Luke Russell said.

Reflecting on the progress he’s made in advocating for those dealing with chronic mental illness, Russell said he thinks his brother John would be proud of the lives he transformed.

“I think he’d be proud,” Russell said. “I think he’d be happy when he found out others that lived his life didn’t have to.”

Although he pointed to the shiny awards and accolades that adorned the walls of his office, Russell said his fondest memories during his 50-year career come from people approaching him and thanking him for saving their loved ones’ lives.

“How blessed could a man be to get to have a career where people come up and say, ‘You saved my daughter’s life’?”

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