Douglas M. Duncan (D) stunned Montgomery County’s political establishment by dropping out of the governor’s race to battle depression.

In the week since Douglas M. Duncan (D) stunned Montgomery County’s political establishment by dropping out of the governor’s race to battle depression, the county executive’s decision has reverberated throughout the mental health community and beyond. 

Sharon Friedman, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County, has been bombarded with phone calls, e-mails and personal exchanges at meetings and social gatherings from people inspired by Duncan’s revelation. The acknowledgment by the county’s most visible elected official for the last dozen years, she said, helps reduce the stigma attached to the illness and gives others “new courage to talk about their own depression. We know there have to be a lot of high-profile people dealing with depression, but there’s only a small percentage that have talked about it publicly,” Friedman said.

Duncan made his announcement last Thursday just days after he said he received the diagnosis of clinical depression, explaining at a news conference that “it is time for me to focus on my health.” Mental health advocates said the public discussion has brought renewed attention to the state of the county’s services. Duchy Trachtenberg, a past vice chair of the County Council’s Mental Health Advisory Committee, said it has encouraged others to “come out and talk about what services they need and what they didn’t get or what works from them.”

Trachtenberg, a health professional whose son suffers from schizophrenia, is an at-large candidate for County Council. In countywide polling for her campaign, she said, residents ranked public health as a major issue and were particularly concerned about the adequacy of mental health services. She said she wants the county to be more aggressive in applying for federal money and to ensure more active case management for all residents afflicted with serious mental illness.

In the last decade, county spending on mental health services has increased 30 percent, to $25.3 million this year, according to Daryl C. Plevy, the county’s chief of behavior health and crisis services. That amount does not include the millions the state reimburses local providers. The county has created a state-of-the-art crisis center that provides behavior health services in an emergency and more recently funded a mental health program for children in the child welfare system.

At Duncan’s headquarters on Colesville Road in Silver Spring, aides and volunteers spent much of this week packing boxes and taking campaign photos from the walls. The phone lines and Web site will be shut down in the weeks ahead. The sentiment expressed by mental health advocates was echoed in the nearly 200 messages posted on the campaign’s Web blog. A Brookeville woman wrote to express her “admiration and gratitude to you for being so forthright regarding your diagnosis,” calling Duncan “part of the chain that will lead to destigmatizing depression.” Just minutes after Duncan concluded his remarks at the County Executive Office Building, a blogger identified as “a fellow sufferer” wrote, “Your honest announcement is an excellent example.”

Even supporters of Duncan’s former gubernatorial rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, wrote to thank him for his openness. “Your decision was, no doubt, incredibly difficult, but I’m glad you have chosen to place your family and your health over the crazy world of politics,” wrote one O’Malley booster. Maryland has never elected a governor from Montgomery County, and some parochialists seemed as emotional about the political loss. A 59-year-old lifelong resident called Duncan’s decision “the saddest day in our state’s history,” and wrote on the blog: “The thought of having our great county executive become Maryland’s first governor from Montgomery County would have been the happiest and proudest day in our state’s history.”
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Write