Mental health activist dies
Described as caring and compassionate by the people who crossed his path, Don Sheard will be remembered as a big-hearted man who overcame his own challenges to help others struggling in the same shoes.
Sheard was found dead at his home in Grass Valley Wednesday morning. He founded SPIRIT, a support group led by peer counselors with mental disorders of their own.
While the cause of death is still pending, it appears the 58-year-old Sheard died of natural causes, according to the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office.
“We have nothing to indicate that there was anything of a suspicious nature in his death,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Gary Jacobsen.
Sheard was working to establish a peer-led drop-in center where people with mental health issues could socialize and talk about their problems with counselors who had the same struggles.
He was diagnosed with critical depression 10 years ago and with bipolar disorder last year.
Sheard will be missed by the people and lives he touched, said Susan Beal, a county behavioral health worker and mentor for the peer counseling program.
Sheard was well known and well loved by many people in the mental health community, said fellow peer counselor Gail Mowen.
“Don was the spearhead, the driving force, if you will, behind SPIRIT,” Mowen said. “He really made it a point to reach out to the peer counselors and people struggling with challenges like his.”
Nevada County lost one of its quiet heroes, said Lily Marie, former peer counselor mentor and Sheard’s good friend.
“For Don, it was community involvement, family and friends – he always put people first,” she said. “He just quietly did the work and helped people and never expected credit.”
Marie hopes the SPIRIT peer-led drop-in center that Sheard envisioned will go forward. “The show must go on. Don would be sorely disappointed if SPIRIT didn’t continue.”
“That would be the greatest memorial to Don to see SPIRIT continue and grow,” said Rod Pence, president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s Nevada County chapter. “He was so involved and devoted to that.”
Sheard was just a teddy bear kind of guy, said Kent Gallagher, a Grass Valley attorney who worked with Sheard in seeking nonprofit status for SPIRIT.
“To me, Don was heroic in the sense that he had these disabilities, but was still out there giving of himself despite his own challenges,” Gallagher said.
But because of his disabilities, Sheard had an awareness that most people lack, Gallagher said. “Maybe that’s why he was here, to learn from that and help others.”
Sheard would get a call at 2 a.m. and go out and spend three hours with someone going through a bad episode, said Allan Phillips, Sheard’s close friend for 44 years and a licensed psychotherapist.
“He had an impact on so many people’s lives,” he said.
The essence of SPIRIT, he said, is the collaboration between peer counselors and clients as equal partners.
“There’s no looking down,” he said. “No matter how far down you are, you can help other people, and that was the key to Don’s recovery, to be able to help others going through the same struggle.”
As a member of the county’s Forensic Task Force on Mental Illness, Sheard was a voice for humane treatment and the rights of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system.
“He was a special guy,” said Nevada County Superior Court Judge Carl F. Bryan, the driving member of the task force.
“He was a valuable member, not only for his quality of ideas and cheerful attitude, but because through his experience in these issues he brought a clear perspective and focus to the problems,” Bryan said. “He always helped people focus and find solutions and he will be greatly missed.”
Sheard is survived by two children.
A Celebration of Life in memory of Don Sheard is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 27 at Pioneer Park in Nevada City. The community is invited to attend. To support Sheard1s legacy, send donations to SPIRIT, c/o Nevada County Behavioral Health, 10433 Willow Valley Road, Nevada City, 95959.
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