Gray O’Dwyer received the Mental Health Advocate Champion of the Year Award from Mental Health America of Virginia at our “Victory for Mental Health” dinner on September 26th at the Westin Richmond. The Honorable Brian Moran, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, was special guest speaker, and Doris Causey, Managing Director of Central Virginia Legal Aid and a former president of the Virginia State Bar, presented the award to Ms. O’Dwyer.
While still a student at the University of Richmond Law School, O’Dwyer led efforts by law students around the state to remove the mental health question from the state bar application. The requirement had discouraged law students who were experiencing a need for counseling from getting help for fear it would exclude them from their chosen profession. Working with other advocates the effort was successful in removing this barrier to treatment.
The award is for efforts in the world of law, but this change has much broader implications. In order to remove the stigma too often associated with mental illness, anyone preparing to enter the work force, or already employed, should believe that getting support is a strength, not something to avoid for fear of discrimination or professional sanctions.
Regardless of where we work, or attend school, or connect with others, all of us can help create a climate where mental health is valued as part of everyone’s overall health.
Gray O’Dwyer is now an Assistant Attorney General working in environmental law. Part of her message to those present at the “Victory” dinner was don’t stand on the sidelines if you are concerned that something isn’t right. Too many people don’t act because they don’t know how to make the change, but there are always others who know how to go about it and are willing to help. If you care about something, as long as you know what and why, you can do something, as there are others who know how to get it done.
Secretary Moran emphasized the need for strong community supports to help keep individuals with a serious mental illness out of our jails and prisons. He spoke of the need for consensus on gun legislation to help prevent suicides, which account for over 60% of gun deaths in Virginia. Efforts to break stigma and encourage support services contribute to both a safer and healthier Virginia.
Doris Causey praised the impact of better mental health awareness on the legal profession throughout Virginia. A special committee of the State Bar issued a report on lawyer wellness, and funding for the Virginia Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (formerly Lawyers Helping Lawyers) has risen dramatically. Every lawyer now pays a $25 assessment to help fund wellness education and support services, and lawyers initially seeking help with addiction or mental health issues are not discouraged by automatic sanctions. These changes and the tremendous work by Ms. O’Dwyer are part of a welcome movement forward for mental health in Virginia.
Thanks to everyone who attended the event, our speakers, sponsors and table hosts. A special thanks to the artists who donated their work for our recovery art silent auction. We look forward to next year’s Victory for Mental Health!