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Revered Mental Health Advocate John Van Aken Dies

He fought for funding, special-needs housing and prison reform through his longtime work with the Mental Health Association

Santa Barbara’s mental health community lost a strong advocate this week.

Social worker Ken Williams told Noozhawk that John Van Aken died this week. Van Aken was a longtime advocate on behalf of those diagnosed with mental illness and fought for funding, special-needs housing, mental health services and prison reform.

Williams worked with Van Aken for years, especially in the 1980s when cutbacks put more mentally ill people on the street, he said.

“He was a kind and compassionate man who always had time for me, my clients and their welfare,” Williams said.

The Mental Health Association in Santa Barbara County created a John Van Aken Advocacy Award for its 60th anniversary to honor him for his work.

Van Aken began volunteering with the association in the 1980s and served on the board of directors from 1987 to 2007. He chaired its public policy committee for much of that time, and he was president in the late 1990s.

He is remembered as being a passionate advocate who put many efforts into mentoring others, said Annmarie Cameron, executive director of the Mental Health Association.

“He inspired me to want to live up to his example of serving others through compassionate, sound and educated public policy,” she said.

Also a lawyer, Van Aken urged attorneys and judges to consider a person’s mental health history and often succeeded in getting his clients into treatment instead of jail. He spent years crusading for the rights of the institutionalized by writing letters to policymakers regarding jail and prison conditions and the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

His involvement spread to the state level as president of the California Coalition for Mental Health, and he received various awards and recognitions for his efforts. Van Aken was also on the criminal justice advisory board for the Fighting Back Coalition.

“I’ll always remember once that he was moved to tears as we sat in the lobby of the Faulding Hotel trying to deal with a casualty of the collapse of the mental health system,” Williams said. “He was a lawyer by training and had the persona of an East Coast gentleman.”

After retiring, Van Aken helped the association gain pro bono access to his former law firm and continued fighting for special-needs housing in the county.

He was born in Indiana in 1922 and attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate and law degrees. He worked for 30 years at Seyfarth Shaw as a labor law attorney and served in the Navy during World War II.

He and his wife, Doris, have two sons, James and John.

A memorial service will be held Jan. 23.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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