AMERICA LOST A HERO ON SUNDAY

I almost wrote, “the mentally ill people of America lost a hero on Sunday,” but that would not have been nearly adequate to contain this giant’s significance to our country.

Dj Jaffe, who succumbed to leukemia and other cancers at age 65 after stoically battling them for fifteen years, was a human beacon of hope and guidance and enlightenment to those who suffered from chronic brain diseases (“chronic” meaning genetically inherited and incurable). And to their caretaking relatives, mostly mothers, in practice; to their often overmatched doctors and therapists; to uninformed policymakers and corrections officers.

Dj was among the three most influential advocates for the mentally ill in the brief history of that calling, along with the author and blogger Pete Earley and the pioneering statesman of advocacy, E. Fuller Torrey, author of many books and the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center. The TAC website is the largest, most diverse compendium of m.i. information online.

Dj Jaffe was a skinny force of nature the likes of which the cautious mental healthcare world had never seen, and not everyone liked him. He walked away from an obscure career in advertising after the sister of his wife, Rose, was stricken with mental illness thirty years ago. Razor-sharp and pugnacious when he had to be, he transformed himself into an expert on the nosology, neuroscience, politics and policy issues surrounding the disease. Wearing his unrepentant bluejeans, ponytail, and oversize glasses (and a wrinkled suit when he had to), Dj mastered libraries of information, then cycloned through public hearings, press interviews, and panel discussions, rising to challenge the dignitaries who did not know what they were talking about—or didn’t care. He delighted in getting thrown out of hearings. Opponents were infuriated by his refusal to back down from a stance or a demand. Truth to tell, he was not always right.

Congressman Tim Murphy.
Photo Credit: Timmurphy / CC BY-SA

He was right often enough. Boring in on our slipshod structure of criminal justice for the insane, he was instrumental in pushing the act known as Kendra’s Law, which allows courts to order treatment for certain mentally ill and perhaps dangerous patients even if they resist it. He worked with the Pennsylvania Republican congressman Tim Murphy to achieve the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. He demanded, and largely achieved, a long-delayed recognition that “chronic mental illness”—genetically inherited and incurable brain afflictions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder—differs on a quantum level from such lesser complaints as depression, alienation, alcoholism, and drug abuse.

In 2017 Pete Earley distilled the reasons why this distinction is essential:

“The problem, according to Jaffe, is that the focus, money and attention in our nation is focused on helping nearly everyone but those ten million [with chronic m.i.] and the result is at least 140,000 SMI Americans being homeless, 392,037 in jails and prisons, 755,360 on probation or parole and at least 95,000 who need hospitalization unable to find a bed.”

His politics were less doctrinaire than fluid, tuned to the needs of the dispossessed who consumed his passions. He founded the nonpartisan Mental Illness Policy Organization.  As an adjunct fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, Dj spoke at a White House summit on mental illness in December 2019. His countless articles and appearances across the media spectrum testify that he was a zealot not for ideology, but for enlightenment and hope.

Dj joined Fuller Torrey and TAC in 1998. He drew on Torrey’s collaborative expertise and on TAC’s informational and advocacy riches for his important 2017 book, Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the  Mentally Ill (Prometheus Books). Torrey acknowledged his friend and disciple’s stature in a statement released this morning:

“Since 1998, when we first started making plans for what became the Treatment Advocacy Center, Dj has been the single most effective advocate I have worked with and a close personal friend. His dedication to improving the treatment of people with serious mental illness, based on his experience with his sister-in-law, has been extraordinary. The amount of time and energy he has invested in this mission, first at TAC and then at Mental Illness Policy Org, is legendary. Even as he knew he was dying, DJ said nothing and continued his advocacy efforts.”

On a personal note:

It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea of meeting Dj Jaffe. His reputation as a controversial know-it-all firebrand put me off. But when we did meet, the rapport was instant. We discovered that we could make one another laugh. (I nearly lost it in a hotel coffee house in New York when my friend got embroiled in an argument with the waiter. This was no ordinary waiter-customer spat: the waiter was yelling at Dj!) Over several breakfasts, dinners and drinks in New York, Washington, and in the Powers home in Vermont, and in many lively emails, we kept up a bantering style that could segue seamlessly into explorations of our passions and ideas.

His just-beneath-the-surface humor proved the key to Dj: The firebrand was a necessary tactic, not a character flaw. In fact, Dj Jaffe was an extraordinarily loving man, as his career shift after his sister-in-law’s illness demonstrates. He enjoyed a longstanding marriage to his wife Rose, a lovely, laughing woman whom he adored. When Rose died two years ago, his friends expected that Dj would be devastated with grief. He may have been, but he was back to his advocacy work in a day or two. He never mentioned his feelings.

He met a woman named Paula about a year and a half ago, via a dating app. She was the one who reached out to him, friends say. Dj probably knew at the time that he was dying. Paula and Dj were married on Friday in his hospital room. Paula wore white pajamas and stomped on a Styrofoam cup. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one. Because that’s the kind of guy Dj Jaffe was.