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Bouncing back from a tough campaign

Published June 4, 2007


DADE CITY - Donovan Brown hasn't been in the newspaper in months.

Not since he ran for the state Legislature last fall. Not since he disappeared from the campaign trail and turned up in a mental health facility after a breakdown. Not since he left the hospital and lost the race.

Brown, who has a history of mental health problems, has been spending his time rebuilding himself and focusing on recovery. He took an economics course at the University of South Florida this spring and earned an A. He got out of the house more.

And he got a new job.

Brown, 27, works three days a week as a "role recovery coach" at the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute, the very place where he was a patient not so long ago.

His job: to help, encourage and coach people receiving mental health services.

He applied at the urging of his mother, a nurse who has seen him battle obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizo affective disorder, depression, anxiety and panic attacks for years.

But in a sense those troubles are exactly what qualify Brown for the job.

The role recovery coach is part of a new approach to mental health treatment, the very opposite of a white-coated doctor passing pills to a patient across a desk.

Instead, patients are connected to someone who can say "I've been there."

"They're grateful that there's someone in a similar situation like themselves," Brown said in an interview recently. "There's someone there to help them out."

Betty Kennedy, his supervisor at the Harbor, said she immediately saw qualities in Brown that she liked.

"He demonstrated a past that showed he was willing to take risks to better himself," she said.

Even without the mental health setback, Brown's legislative campaign was always a longshot.

He ran as a Democrat for the District 61 House seat. Ken Littlefield, a Republican, had held the seat since it was created in 1999. He appeared headed for an easy re-election when Gov. Jeb Bush tapped him for a state-level appointment, and he dropped out of the race.

Brown's chances still didn't improve. To replace Littlefield, the Republican Party hand-picked Will Weatherford, a legislative aide and son-in-law of the former House speaker. From the outset, he had money and staff and publicity.

Brown had virtually no party support and a paltry campaign fund made up mostly of his own money.

Finally, in early October, the pressure caught up to him. He was spooked by the choice of Weatherford, who was also 26 and, he thought, chosen because he mirrored Brown himself. And he was angry at the mechanism of the law that allowed Littlefield to leave for a better gig and be replaced in the race.

Oct. 5, he called the St. Petersburg Times and said he had been admitted to the Harbor under the Baker Act, which allows people to be held against their will for mental evaluation.

He wanted out. He was scared and antsy and eager to continue with his campaign. He didn't go home for a week.

But then, instead of getting out and meeting voters, he stayed in the familiar comfort of his mom's house in Zephyrhills.

Weatherford won with 60 percent of the vote.

Brown got the Harbor job in December. Some of his duties are clerical, like answering phones and filling out forms online. Some are more personal.

He described a day when he taught a woman how to use the bus system. She can't drive, but she wanted to be able to get out and shop for personal items for herself.

Brown met her at home and walked with her to the bus stop. The bus was late, but he assured her it would come.

During the ride, he explained the routes, the schedules and the fares. She asked him to repeat it all.

They went to a store in Zephyrhills, then met the bus again for the trip home.

"It's the ordinary things that are extraordinary to the mentally ill," Kennedy said. "They're isolated. To learn how to use the public transportation system is huge. That gives them access to their world."

Brown is re-connecting with the outside too. He has set goals for himself. He wants to get a full-time job, maybe as a case manager for the Harbor. He is trying to socialize more. He might go back to school for a master's degree.

The Harbor job, he said, is a step in his own recovery.

"Whenever you're in a situation where you have a mental health disorder, it's limiting," he said. "You want to strive for ways to regain what you lost, to lead a productive life."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at (352) 521-6521 or

[Last modified June 4, 2007, 01:59:57]

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