Devon Corpus remembers her second job interview at the Monterey County Health Department. She took a tour of the county’s inpatient Mental Health Unit with Robert “just call me Jackson” Jackson, a county Behavioral Health Services manager who would go on to become her supervisor as a psychiatric social worker.
As he walked her through the unit, a neatly dressed woman with a notebook and pen in her hand accompanied them, chiming in occasionally.
At the end of the tour, the woman, who turned out to be a patient, returned to her room.
“I thought she was a nurse. He didn’t try to shoo her away,” Corpus says. “Jackson was so respectful, letting her put her two cents in. He had that kind of compassion for the patients.”
Jackson, who worked in county mental health for more than two decades, navigated bureaucracy with the same kind of finesse with which he handled patients. He helped create a number of therapeutic courts at Monterey County Superior Court – for example, a court for military veterans accused of nonviolent crimes who are more in need of substance-abuse treatment and therapy than jail. He loosed Corpus to run down grant money and launch a crisis intervention team to work with law enforcement all over the county, training officers to try to bring conflicts involving mentally ill people to a peaceful end and assisting law enforcement involved in traumatic events, including officer-involved shootings. Fanatical about Hawaii, he tried to instill “the spirit of Aloha” in his staff, Corpus says, describing it as a spirit of cooperation and peace around the common goal of helping the mentally ill, those in crisis and each other.
That came to an end on Nov. 18, when Jackson took his own life while visiting family in Sarasota, Florida. The longtime Carmel Valley resident leaves behind his wife, Donna, a nurse at Natividad Medical Center, and several step-children.
He also leaves behind friends and colleagues like Corpus and Wayne Clark, former head of Behavioral Health, who together penned Jackson’s obituary that ran in the Monterey Herald.
While that obituary identified the cause of Jackson’s death as suicide, it also pointed to an underlying cause. In April 2015, Jackson was called into the office of then-county Health Director Ray Bullick and placed on paid administrative leave. The move came just five days after Jackson lodged complaints that Dr. David Soskin, medical director of Behavioral Health, had created a hostile work environment for Corpus and another staffer.
Jackson remained on administrative leave until his death.
What sounds like a dream for some – getting paid to not show up to work – had become for Jackson an endless nightmare. The obituary describes it as an “18-month emotional ordeal that proved too much for him.”
Last January, Jackson filed a claim against the county alleging the forced leave was retaliation for the complaint against Soskin; the county denied that claim. It’s unclear if Jackson’s widow intends to sue and Jackson’s attorney, John Sarsfield, declined to comment.
Corpus, who was placed on leave the same day as Jackson, returned to the Health Department in a different position, but left permanently in August. She says the greatest torment for her late mentor was that he was such a county loyalist, he couldn’t reconcile not working there any longer.
According to Corpus, Jackson had no preexisting depression and no history of previous suicide attempts. “He was by the book and he was a company man,” Corpus says. “He always thought, ‘This is a mistake and they’re going to fix it.’ He believed they would make it right.
“When I teach officers about post-traumatic stress disorder, I tell them traumatic situations involve ‘flight, fight or freeze,’” Corpus says. “The first two are action-oriented, but when you’re in a state of freeze, you feel helpless and hopeless and that you have no control. Jackson was in a state of freeze for 18 months.”
It’s unclear why the county placed Jackson on leave for all that time. Maybe they were just hoping he would go away.
On Dec. 29, Robert Jackson would have turned 58 years old.
His friends and family are planning a memorial service to take place in February.