Morning Zen

Celebrating the Life of Richard Donner – Family Partner Extraordinaire

February 03, 2023

Richard Donner

I lost a friend the other day, and all of us in the children’s mental health space lost a pillar of the family movement. Richard Donner passed away after a brief battle with Pancreatic Cancer.

Dating back to the 1980s, Richard was unwavering in his commitment to ensuring that parent-professional partnerships were based on trust, authenticity, and unwavering respect for what families brought to the table. Whether you knew Richard or not, if you are a family advocate, a provider, or both, you have benefited from his presence and participation in building the movement that has defined my adult life.

Richard was part of a small movement that grew steadily over the past four decades. A movement of parents and professionals who committed themselves to accept nothing less than equal partnership when discussing and deciding on the fate of children with behavioral health challenges. What kind of treatment would they receive? And who would decide? Would it be the professionals who, for generations, had grown comfortable deciding for? Or would it be professionals, parents, and families working together to decide with?

Such a simple yet foreign notion back in the 1980s. The idea of listening to parent and family voice to guide the treatment planning process was heretical to many. But there were those, like Richard, who said enough is enough. Family voice had to be front and center; if you didn’t like it, you could move to the side.

Richard was Barbara Huff’s daughter’s therapist. As many readers will know, Barbara is one of the founders of the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. I remember when I first met Barbara and listened in amazement as she told stories of her daughter’s therapist, unlike any other therapist she had known. His commitment to the Huff family was unconditional. Barbara gives him much credit for helping her build the fortitude and strength needed to lead the national family voice movement.

A few years after meeting Barbara, I got to meet and experience the Richard that Barbara gushed about. Richard and I were elected to serve on the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Board of Directors. For me, it was love and admiration at first sight. What impressed me most was that Richard couldn’t give two flips about what title people held or where they were from. What he cared about most deeply was whether or not you were committed to the importance of a family-driven approach. And lord help you if you were full of bull and trying to bluff your way through a profession of support for the family movement. Back in the day, that was “a thing” to be contended with. Richard could see through insincerity in an instant and had the remarkable skill of being able to filet a pretender in the most polite, often humorous, and even respectful way. He was so darned smart and quick. But if you were a pretender, he let you know that he knew that you knew that he knew very quickly. It made for some hilarious encounters at conference social gatherings.

I used to stand back and marvel at his ability to put pretenders on notice in this loving, often hilarious way. And some of the pretenders (no names needed) got it, came around, and became lifelong supporters of the movement. I used to call it the Donner effect. And as I write this, I am chuckling and tearing up at the same time.

Left to Right: Bill Reay, Scott Bryant-Comstock, Barbara Huff, Richard Donner (FFCMH conference, early days!)

Richard knew that there was no time to waste with pretenders. The goal of putting family voice first in policy and practice in the children’s mental health arena was just too important. Placating insincere pretenders in decision-making roles in the professional community was not an option. That may sound harsh, but you need to understand that the influential genuine professional supporters of the family movement were small in number back then. And because of that, they all were incredibly and unapologetically fierce. Richard was one of them.

To you youngin’s reading this tribute to Richard, know that there are Richards amongst your generation. Heck, you may even be one. If so, celebrate the Richard in you and let it out. Find the strength to go against the traditional grain. Do it like Richard did – always with respect and an unwavering steel core bound by a code of ethics that demands nothing less than total respect for families.

As for you old geezers like me, well, the family movement that Richard and I, and so many of you, were a part of those many years ago has undeniably lost some steam, definitely become a bit watered down, and the collective steel core bound by a family-driven code of ethics has taken a few hits. But that’s okay because our job is to keep fighting. Keep pointing out the inequities. Keep raising heck when the heck needs to be raised. Keep loving each other and celebrating how far we have come and how very, very far we still need to go.

In every issue of Friday Update, I share a song at the top and always close with the saying, “get busy, cuz we got work to do!” When I wrote that in this issue, I smiled. I heard Richard giving me heck, telling me to get off my duff and get busy.

Okay, brother, I’m carrying on, but now it is your time to take a well-earned rest.

We got this.

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About the Author

Scott Bryant-Comstock

Hello, I’m Scott Bryant-Comstock, CEO and founder of the Children’s Mental Health Network. For the past 40 years, my journey as a mental health advocate has traveled from volunteering at a suicide and crisis center, professional roles as a therapist in an outpatient clinic, in-home family therapist, state mental health official, Board Chair for a county mental health program, and national reviewer of children’s mental health systems reform efforts. As the founder of the Children’s Mental Health Network, I lead the Network’s efforts to grow a national online forum to exchange ideas on how to improve children’s mental health research, policy, and practice.

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