Tuesday, July 9, 2019
USC Gould alumni have played a key role at Mental Health Advocacy Services for the past 40 years and will continue to lead it into the future.
By Julie Riggott
In 1977, at a time when it was not only uncommon but also unpopular to consider the legal rights of people with mental disabilities, Mental Health Advocacy Services was founded to protect and advance those rights. In 1979, a USC Gould student who had volunteered during those early years became executive director of the nonprofit immediately after earning his juris doctor. That alumnus was Jim Preis (JD 1979).
With Preis at the helm, MHAS helped turn the tide for those with mental disabilities, working to challenge the
Jim Preis (JD 1978) joined Mental Health Advocacy Services in 1979. He led the organization until his death in 2018.
associated stigma and establishing MHAS as the go-to legal resource for those with mental health disabilities. For four decades, MHAS achieved milestone after milestone with advocacy, education and impact legislation.
In October, after a seven-month battle with cancer, Preis passed away. But another USC Gould graduate was hired to carry on the mission. Jenny Farrell ( JD 2011) began as executive director on Jan. 2. “Jim leaves quite a legacy to follow,” Farrell says.
“Jim was a larger-than-life figure in the mental health advocacy world. He stood for some core fundamental values — for respecting everyone’s right, regardless of their mental ability, to make their own legal and health choices.”
Preis’ legacy is a guiding light for Farrell as she leads MHAS through this transition. Former director of external relations at the L.A. Center for Law and Justice, another legal aid agency, Farrell worked with pro bono attorneys, raised the profile of legal aid in L.A. and fundraised — all things she will do at MHAS.
“I see MHAS as remaining that beacon organization that’s committed to those core values that Jim stood for,” she says. “We have unique training and expertise around mental health law and the rights and benefits to which those dealing with severe mental illness are entitled. We know how to best work with those clients in a trauma-informed and holistic way to get them those rights and benefits and how to best work with the agencies that provide those services and benefits.”
MHAS has advocated for children and adults, gaining access to mental health services, government benefits, special education and fair housing, while fighting discrimination. It has championed the rights of underrepresented groups such as foster children, abused and neglected children, minors in juvenile hall, low-income individuals, individuals experiencing homelessness, veterans and immigrants in detention facilities.
MHAS also serves as a resource to the community by providing training and technical assistance to attorneys, mental health professionals, nonprofit housing developers, local governments, consumer and family member groups, and other advocates.
Its impact litigation has shaped historic change with cases that initiated community-based services as an alternative to hospitals, ended arbitrary discontinuation of disability benefits, and mandated assessment and services for special education students, among other achievements.
Elyn Saks, director of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics at USC Gould, says that MHAS has been a blessing, and not many states have anything like it.
“Given a city of this size and diversity, there’s huge need. The statistics show one in four adults at one time in their life will face a major mental illness. This is something that affects all of us, whether we know it in this moment or not,” Saks says. “So it’s great to have a place like MHAS looking out for people.”
Preis invited Saks, who is also Orrin B. Evans Distinguished Professor of Law, to join the MHAS Board before he knew she was a patient as well as a lawyer for patients. Saks eventually opened up about her own struggles in her memoir, "The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness." They co-taught courses on mental health law at Gould, and Preis co-authored a textbook on the subject.
“He’s a gifted teacher, and the students loved having him as a professor,” Saks says. “It was a huge loss for the patients and consumers who were helped by what he did at his organization and a loss for the students who got the benefit of working with someone who’s so impassioned and knowledgeable.”
CONTINUING A LEGACY
Preis’ legacy and the critical efforts of MHAS are work that many other USC Gould alumni have supported over the agency’s life. Pam Marx ( JD 1978) was an intern with Preis during the early years of MHAS (many other Gould interns have followed). She returned more than 20 years ago, after a career at a law firm and as in-house counsel for a national media and communications company, and is now MHAS’ directing attorney.
“It is always a wonderful experience to be able to tell a client that his subsidized housing voucher has been reinstated or that she has been approved for SSI benefits,” says Marx, who was honored in 2012 by USC Gould as PILF Public Interest Attorney of the Year. “But MHAS, like most legal services agencies, can provide representation to only a fraction of the clients who need legal assistance. What continues to move me in our work at MHAS is how all of our staff strive to serve with meaningful and thoughtful consult even those clients for whom we provide only brief assistance.”
“[Jim Preis] stood for some core fundamental values — for respecting everyone’s right, regardless of their mental ability, to make their own legal and health choices.” — Jenny Farrell ( JD 2011), executive director, Mental Health Advocacy Services, pictured above.
Both Marx and Farrell pointed out that when you call MHAS, a person answers the phone; it’s one example of how they listen to and respect each individual. “Leaving a message and not getting a call back can be really frustrating for you or me,” Farrell explains, “but imagine if you’re struggling with severe mental illness and you’re in anguish or in crisis and you leave that message that doesn’t get a return call. That could be the difference between getting the help you need and deciding to give up.”
Farrell brings the compassion and enthusiasm that continuing Preis’ strides will require. As a child of small-town lawyers in Southern California, she learned early on about access to justice. “I always wanted to be a change maker and be part of a greater social justice movement,” she says. As a Gould student, she worked with the Post-Conviction Justice Project earning parole release for two women who had each been in prison for more than 20 years. She was named Public Interest Student of the Year and won the Mason Brown Award for showing promise in public interest and trial work.
Nicolas Muñoz ( JD 2018) is another USC graduate who went to law school with public service in mind and ended up at MHAS, which he discovered as a student. As an Irmas Legal Fellow, he is focusing on special education, an area that personally affected his own family.
“It breaks my heart but reminds me of how important our work is when I go to an IEP [Individualized Education Program] meeting at a school and a parent tells me, ‘That meeting was a complete 180 from what I’m used to. I was able to talk today,’” says Muñoz, who researched supported decision making as an alternative to conservatorship with Prof. Saks when he was a Saks Scholar at Gould.
“Parents come to you with open arms and say, ‘Please help me.’ It’s difficult to ignore the gravity of the services when you can have somebody saying that to you.”