John Foley, PhD

john foley

Board President 1972- 1973
Professor Emeritus, Research Professor UCSB

John Foley, Ph.D. served as Board President of the Santa Barbara Mental Health Association from 1972- 1973, before it was rebranded as the Mental Wellness Center. He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he had a happy childhood dominated by school, sports, and scouting. He attended the University of Notre Dame and majored in physics, yet as he was entering college, his older brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This diagnosis inspired John to pursue graduate and post-doctoral degrees in psychology, which he completed at Columbia University. Shortly after, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he works as a Research Professor of Psychology.

John shares his recollections from his time on the board below.

1) How did you first get involved with the Mental Health Association?

I came to Santa Barbara in 1963. I read in the paper that the Mental Health Association was buying a property on Chapala Street and would offer a Fellowship Club for people with mental illness. I called the director, Violet McGinnis, to ask about the program. At the start, the program met in the evening, one night a week. Vi told me that she was looking for volunteers. I became one. There were 12-15 members and 2-4 volunteers in addition to Vi. The program consisted of games and refreshments. Usually, there were several different games going on at once.

2.) What inspired you to get involved with the Mental Health Association?

By the time I got to Santa Barbara, I was very familiar with mental illness. While I was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City, my brother escaped from a locked mental hospital and called on me for help. He came and lived with me for one year. I saw his struggle to sleep, to get away from the delusions, to get a job, to find friends. There was little to help him. I jumped at the chance to be a friend to mentally ill people.

3.) How did your professional life advance your work at the Mental Health Association, if at all?

My professional life had little effect on my work at SBMHA. When I got to Columbia, I took a year-long course on psychopathology. By the end of the course, I was greatly discouraged. Science had very little understanding of mental illness. Psychopathology was basically lists of symptoms. I chose to specialize in cognitive psychology, which offered much more promise. Sadly, in spite of billions of dollars of research funding and thousands of research papers, the picture has not changed much, especially with schizophrenia. Medications and other therapies help some of the victims, some of the time. One-day science will conquer mental illness, just as it is now conquering cancer. The most essential thing that we can do is to recognize that mentally ill people are fellow humans who struggle and suffer through no fault of their own. What they wish for and need is to be loved, as do we all.

4.) What contribution or achievement are you most proud of as it relates to your volunteer work at the Mental Health Association?

In the 1980’s the Association established a Housing Committee. I was appointed chair. The Association sponsored a group for family members of mentally ill people. One of the members was Eric Lyons, a retired realtor, who was one of two in Santa Barbara that had supported a statewide proposition to outlaw racial covenants in property deeds. Eric agreed to be on the Housing Committee. It emerged that Eric owned a house on Juana Maria Street that he was willing to lease to the Association for use as a care home. Our goal was to create a model that could be replicated everywhere without subsidy. We realized that we could do that only if staff lived in the house and accepted housing as part of their compensation. The residents paid most of their SSI check in rent. We were able to get this model to work, but only because we found a very special couples that accepted our terms. They needed time off including some weekends. Volunteers from the Housing Committee filled in for them. It worked only because we had a very good team, including Nancy Johnson, our then Executive Director.

Eric then decided to move to Canada. He offered to give us a 1/5th interest in his Montecito House, if we would buy the rest. MHA agreed. This was a beautiful craftsman house with five bedrooms and it had a guest cottage with two bedrooms. It had beautiful grounds. We named it Lyons House. It was the most beautiful care home that I have ever seen.

The day it opened was a very happy day for the Housing Committee.

Our next project was to build apartments for mentally ill people who could manage them. We partnered with a developer, who had the idea of selling tax credits to raise capital. The partnership proved very difficult, but eventually the apartments were built and are very nice. Here we had a resident manager with her own apartment. The project was named the Eleanor Apartments, after Eleanor Wright, an early and long-time leader in the Santa Barbara Mental Health Association.

5.) What was the Center like in those early days when you were involved? How has it changed?

When I first joined, the Mental Health Association was a small group. The people worked very well together. Almost everyone was there because of a strong interest in mental illness. They were program volunteers, as well as serving on the board. When I was president, I tried to broaden the base of membership by offering lectures of wide community interest and providing an annual report to the members. The membership and income increased and the number and size of programs gradually increased.

It was our policy not to seek or accept public money. As advocates for the mentally ill, we often were at odds with government. One of my first assignments in 1968 was to lead a citizen’s review of the Camarillo State Hospital. The team consisted of volunteers from the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles Chapters. We spent a full day at the hospital, looking around and talking with patients and staff. There were some good programs at Camarillo, but the locked wards, with small cells and tiny windows, were indistinguishable from prisons. Driving home, I was sick to my stomach.

The chapter also undertook a review of Santa Barbara County Mental Health Services. This involved going to every facility to observe and talk with patients and staff. There were also questionnaires for patients and staff. One of the findings was that there was a widespread lack of confidence in the Director of MHS, who was moonlighting as Director of the Camarillo State Hospital. We went to the Board of Supervisors and successfully advocated to have him terminated. We went back another time and saved the position of another director, who was unconventional, but effective.

When Ronald Reagan was governor, patients were released en masse from state hospitals. Parents were often unable to take them in. A housing crisis ensued that still exists. In the 1990’s the SBMHA undertook a study to determine and evaluate the housing situation of every client of Mental Health Services on the south coast.

We were also active at the state level. I was appointed to represent Santa Barbara on the board of the Mental Health Association in California. The next year I was elected Vice-President for Public Policy. I was not very effective in the role because I had neither the time nor the money to go to testify before the legislature in Sacramento. One day at a local board meeting I sat next to a new board member, John Van Aken, He was a retired lawyer, who had just moved to Santa Barbara. He was frustrated because he had not been given an assignment. I invited him to come to a state board meeting. John dove into public policy. For the rest of his life, he had a table in his home piled high with mental health documents. I resigned as vice-president and John was elected. It was a period of turmoil at the state level, but John stayed calm and focused. He played an important role in drafting the millionaire’s tax bill, Proposition 63, adopted in 2004, which imposed a tax of 1% of income over $1 million for mental health.

6.) Reflecting back today, do you have a favorite memory? Does anything still resonate with you?

I remember the first night that Gary Hart came to Fellowship Club. He was a tall, handsome guy, who had been a football star at Santa Barbara High and had run for Congress. I got to know him when I served on his campaign committee. I introduced him to the club and he immediately sat down and started playing cards with some of the members. Gary came on Monday nights for about a year. During that year, Gary and I talked about mental health and other public policy issues. Later, as a state assembly member, state senator, and state superintendent of education, he was a strong advocate for mental health, although his main focus was education. Gary died last year.

Jim Caffree grew up in a poor family in south Los Angeles. He was an only child and his parents were much older. Jim could run. He ran fast enough to get a full athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California. He lasted one year. Then schizophrenia came. He was committed to Camarillo State Hospital. In the general release, he was sent to Santa Barbara and lived in a family care home. I met him at Fellowship Club. We had in common our Irish roots and that we had both been runners. He was out of touch with his parents and terribly lonely. Every few weeks, he came to our house on Saturday for lunch. Then we would throw or kick a ball around. My young son participated and still has vivid memories of Jim. As my life became more complex and Jim made other friends, this happened less often. One day I called Jim’s care home. I was told that he had moved out and left no new address or phone number. I never saw him again.