A “Selfless Transformation Agent” Unafraid to Share His Pain and Help Others Work Through Their Own
By Rob Waters
David Bartley may be the hardest working man in suicide prevention and also one of the most vulnerable. He has experienced both horrible abuse and deep depression and found a path forward. In the hundreds of talks and trainings he does, he doesn’t hesitate to mine these experiences and share them with his audience – along with some good animal stories.
Kristene Smith, chief executive officer of Mental Health California, calls Bartley a “selfless transformation agent” in the mental health world. “His words sear into you, like daggers of love, digging through your soul to get you to the other side,” she says. “By inspiring others with his deepest pain, we are able to reach new plateaus in suicide prevention throughout California and beyond.”
To honor Bartley’s work as a Mental Health Champion and suicide prevention advocate and learn about his life and work, I spoke with him on Zoom. Heaven, his deaf Boston Terrier puppy, squirmed in his lap for part of the time, obscuring a blue T-shirt that sums up his credo: ““Hugging is my business and business is good.”
Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve had a remarkable journey, overcoming a lot of early loss and trauma. Tell me about your childhood.
I was born in Chicago, and moved with my mom, dad and three older brothers to Silver Spring, Maryland in 1966. My father died when I was 7. He was only 42. My brothers told me he suffered terribly from clinical depression and was an early electroconvulsive therapy patient. His father ended his life by suicide when my father was very young. Mom remarried four years later and my new dad, bless his Catholic heart, had nine children. I became the 12th of 13 kids.
The mythical Brady Bunch.
Our family ran like a business. Dad was a meteorologist; Mom went to nursing school in her 40s. The kids were responsible for dinner, taught to do laundry, got a section of the house to clean. When I needed emotional interaction, I could go to my friend and neighbor Michael’s house — still a dear friend after 50 years. If my environment was structured, his was an incubator for creativity.
Not long after my parents married, when I was 11, I suffered the horror of being raped by a Boy Scout leader. I share this and, depending on the audience, sometimes I’ll go into detail, especially if I’m talking to kids who suffered trauma themselves. I explain that this confluence of genetic predisposition and trauma can be the recipe for depression. Sometimes I wonder: Given my father’s experience, would I have experienced depression absent the trauma?
How did you cope after this abuse?
I tried to stay invisible. I became a conformist. I did my chores. When I was 17, I lived in Australia as an exchange student with a dysfunctional family. My host father was horrifically abusive verbally to my host mother. That was a tough year.
The assault by the scout leader — did you tell anyone? Or did you repress and bury it?
I kept it a secret. I remember when the memory returned. I was a resident assistant at a small liberal arts school, St. Mary’s College. I remember being in my room and I had this bizarre thought about being sodomized. I’m like ‘God, what is that?’ I thought it was a bad dream. I don’t remember how long it took me to arrive at the realization: This happened. Twice. Once in a car, then in a tent. I didn’t tell my mother until I was in my 40s. I will never forget, right before I got out of the car, he looked at me and said, ‘What happened is an initiation, and all the boys go through it, but we never talk about it.’ I locked the door for a great many years. I still have lingering effects. I don’t feel like I’m very manly. Why didn’t I run out of the car? I still struggle with that. Even with a lot of therapy, there are still emotional scars. It was the accelerant that launched me into horrific depression. I still have my days, I might have a bad week — but they don’t last for weeks and months.
But they used to?
Yeah. I came across a quote: ‘The problem when you’re depressed is you believe that everything you think is true.’ And that’s exactly right. I’ve been critical of myself most of my life. I’ve never heard voices, but I’ve experienced the worst thoughts possible. I tell people that if you want to understand suicide, you have to put aside logic. The whole thing is a lie. It’s just an acute, almost indescribable self-hatred.
How did the abuse affect the rest of your childhood? And how did you move toward healing?
It was a cyclical experience of troughs of depression and this incredible longing to connect because I felt so isolated. After college, I moved to California and have been in Sacramento since 1988. Got into real estate finance. When I met my former wife, Deanna, in 1996, I’d never had a dog. She had a Boston Terrier, Wally, and I fell in love. We got heavily involved in animal care and rescue, and ultimately ran this huge animal sanctuary. At one point, Wally got hurt — attacked by another dog. I cared for his wounds, drained his tubes. I loved it. When he died, instead of getting a puppy, we adopted two seniors from a shelter. We changed their names to Chance and Bliss. That started an unplanned journey towards rescuing animals that were sick, old or had special needs. We moved to Penryn, got some land and a 26-year-old Arabian mare. Then a sheep, a goat, a steer. It fulfilled something in me — the reciprocity of connection and care, taking care of myself and taking care of animals.
You were nurturing animals in a way you probably wanted to have been nurtured yourself.
Yes, and then the crash hit — and I got wiped out. It was a stressful time, taking care of 25 horses, 23 dogs, nine pot-bellied pigs, goats, sheep, birds, turtles, fish. Stress is probably the biggest trigger to my depression. I figured Deanna and the animals would be better off without me. I had a term life insurance policy and I thought, Okay, this will pay off. Often, when somebody ends their life, people are caught by surprise. They say, gosh, a week ago, he was fine. That’s because when you see a solution to a problem that seemed unsolvable, you actually feel a bit better.
Like the suffering is not indefinite, there’s an end to it.
Exactly. The other part that comes up is how could this person be so selfish. I tell people, in that moment, you are convinced that what you’re doing is selfless. It’s not that you’re unconcerned about the impact, you think the gift that you give is greater than the impact. The plague of suicidal ideation is you become consumed by it, think about it all the time. Sleep may be the only time you get respite.
How long did you think about this?
Probably 1,000 times. I planned to jump off the Foresthill Bridge in Auburn, the highest bridge in California, 730 feet. I had the whole thing scouted, knew where I was going to park. I put the suicide note on the center of the dash, walked to the midpoint and stared down at the North Fork of the American River. I’d done the calculation, it was gonna take me 7.5 seconds. But someone drove by and called 911. A sheriff’s deputy approached me slowly on foot. First thing he did is make contact — asked my name. Then he created connection, which is lifesaving, because connection creates hope, and hope saves lives. He leveraged curiosity and asked counterintuitive questions. The first was, ‘David, what does it feel like to be depressed?’ At that point, everything decelerated — and the key to keeping people safe is to slow things down. He asked, ‘What’s it like on your worst days?’ Then he pivoted to ‘What’s it like on your best days?’ and ‘What do you want the rest of your life to be like?’ Those questions saved my life. And here’s the exclamation point: He didn’t say, ‘Hey, way not to be a pussy.’ He looked at me and he said, ‘Thank you for telling me how you feel.’ Extraordinary.
What made you decide not to jump?
Lady Bird Johnson has this great quote: ‘Sometimes people need to hurt out loud.’ He allowed me to do that. Sometimes parents don’t want me to talk about suicide attempts to kids because they think it will give them ideas. But if somebody’s suicidal, you’re not going to plant the idea of suicide. When you talk about it, you give somebody a chance to unburden their soul. Hope is powerful — you just need a glimpse.
He said, ‘Would you please come with me?’ ‘Yeah, I will.’ I felt safe. I spent two weeks in the psych ward, and it was awesome. I tell people that, and they’re like, ‘Really?’ In the hospital, this amazing psychiatrist came in with no lab coat or clipboard and he didn’t start in with clinical questions. We talked about life and he found out about the animal sanctuary. ‘Oh, my God, I love dogs.’ He established connection. Eventually he asked if there’s any history of mental illness and if I’d experienced trauma. I explained my story and he took my hands and told me, ‘You didn’t choose your genetics and you didn’t choose your trauma. It’s not your fault.’ When somebody says something like that, and you can actually hear it, it changes everything. Mental illness is complex, but the solution is simple. If we all become masters at the art of connection, we win. The monster wants to isolate us. That’s why COVID has been so bad.
Tell me about your work, and how it connects to your own healing.
Within 10 weeks of when I was taken off the bridge, I’d lost everything – my car and house got repo’ed, animals were taken away. I lost everything. But an amazing thing happened. And this underscores this whole power of connection. I made a friend in the psych hospital named Don, a middle-aged man. And when he got out, he found this men’s depression support group, all middle-aged men who met every Tuesday for two hours. I started in that group when I got out and continued for six years. From that group, I met my therapist and my psychiatrist, who I still see. I got on medication. I met a dear friend, Will Taylor, who gave me the first opportunity to speak. A year later I actually told my story.
I use 20 different animal stories in my talks. To give people an idea of what it feels like to be depressed, I tell a story of a terrier who’s been used as bait in a dogfighting ring. Later, I show I show this other picture of the same pup, Winston, when he became vibrant and whole. ‘This is what mental health feels like,’ I say. I tell a story about a goose, who lived his whole life in somebody’s small backyard and swam in a kiddie pool. They’re not told for cuteness. Every story has a specific teaching point. It also makes it memorable, because they won’t forget an animal story.
So now your life is suicide prevention advocate.
Suicide is my main topic, but I also talk on leadership and culture. My purpose in life is to transform the topic of mental illness from a condition to a cause. Because when something is a cause, like breast cancer and diabetes and heart disease, stigma can’t attach to it. There’s stigma around mental illness, there’s stigma around grief. There’s no stigma around breast cancer.
Even before COVID, suicide rates were rising. What do think is fueling this trend?
The mechanism that drives this whole thing, especially suicide, is isolation. When we’re depressed, we can’t get out of bed. We don’t feel worthy of the company of other people. The condition that needs to be overcome is isolation. People won’t embrace services when they’re in isolation. COVID has created social distancing and forced isolation. I’m concerned we’re going to put children back into an isolated scenario when they haven’t had time to heal and reestablish connections. I’ve created this school program I call ‘A Lesson in Mental Health.’ In a single day, you talk to everybody — to students in a big assembly, to teachers after school, and to parents in the evening. You reach every person that makes up that school in a single day, teach them to create connection.
Every year for the last five years, I go back to the bridge. This last year, my beloved, Summer, said I want to go with you. Going with her epitomized the contrast between isolation and connection. I tell people: this is all we need to do. When people are connected, they’ll embrace services, but in the absence of connection, they won’t. (Note: Bartley separated from Deanna in 2012 and first connected with Summer in 2018).
How does the work you do reciprocally help your healing?
I’ve spent most of my life feeling like a piece of crap. It’s given me a purpose. It gives me something that I’ve longed for, some self-esteem, some self-worth. I did a training with the sheriff’s department in Sacramento. And at the back of the room was a big badass SWAT officer. The next day he calls Allie, one of the training officers I work with, and tells her this story:
‘Hey, I was there for the mental health training. It was good, but the suicide prevention guy was too touchy-feely, I thought it was bullshit. But the next day, I got called to a suicide in progress — a guy was going to jump off a bridge. I was walking up to the guy and thought, ‘What the hell? I’ll try the questions.’ Allie said the guy used the same questions that the deputy used with me and talked the guy off the bridge. The last thing he said was, ‘This shit works.’