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Rusty Selix and Debbie Plotnick

By Paul Gionfriddo, MHA President and CEO

The Mental Health America community lost a friend, a mentor, a fierce advocate, and a family member when we lost Rusty Selix to ALS this week.

The accolades have poured in from many individuals and organizations who he touched during his productive life. They’ve cited his contributions to MHA in its California affiliates, to NCBH and its California association, to the Steinberg Center in Sacramento, and to the people of the state of California. They will benefit for years to come for his far-sighted, successful ballot proposition that pours billions of dollars into preventive services for mental health.

Rusty was a policy giant. He had a sense of creativity and a passion for policy innovation. He could think big policy thoughts. And he could manage building all the little pathways to bring them to a successful conclusion.

Rusty earned his place in our memories for these, and more than earned the public recognition he received.

But he earned his place in our hearts for much more. His empathy. His engagement. His counsel. His spirit. His joy.

I was introduced to MHA through my wife Pam, who worked for two MHA affiliates. When she arrived at her first annual conference nearly twenty years ago, Rusty was one of the first people to take her under his wing. He sat and had drinks with her. He brought together friends. He talked about the Grateful Dead. He laughed. He made her feel comfortable.

That’s what Rusty did for me, too. When I was new to my job five years ago and pushing forward with changes at MHA – our screening program, our B4Stage4 launch, our children’s and school initiatives, our plan to engage with federal policymakers to get good mental health reform legislation crafted and passed – he always looked forward toward the goal, supported the effort needed to get there, and offered his advice and encouragement. I quickly figured out that if Rusty thought it was possible for us to do these things, then it was.

Months after Rusty lost his ability to write, he was still using assistive technology to give me advice. In a thoughtful email to me a few weeks ago, he laid out a strategy for pushing forward with school-based mental health initiatives. Long after most of us would have retreated into ourselves, he was still working for the generation who would come next.

Shortly after Rusty was diagnosed, I sent him an email sharing some of my own family’s challenges at that time. I talked about the hope with which we were trying to live and the comfort we were trying to find in the present, without too much worrying about a future we could not control.

His response touched me:

“I want you to share my letter with the full board and staff and I hope that when you do so you will also share your response because I know everyone gets a lot out of your open sharing of the challenges you had to face, which seemed to be more than just about anyone I know.

“I feel very strongly supported by family, friends and colleagues, who universally seem to agree that I'm approaching this the best possible way.

“My nature is to be an eternal optimist, and there is much to be hopeful about.

“Managing my life with the presence of this disease inside me is now my primary activity. But my passion for advancing our cause is just as strong as ever and making B4 stage4 the norm instead of the exception is the key to accomplishing all our goals.

“Best regards and looking forward to many more years working together.”

Best regards, Rusty. Thank you for always thinking more about others than yourself. And thank you for your continuing lessons in hope and optimism. We’re all looking forward to many more years working together with you in spirit.