February 2014—Leanne McBurney Truehart

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Mental Health Advocate Answers the Call to Public Service

Dr. Leanne McBurney Truehart has built her career on caring for the mentally ill in the community. In addition to the over 20 years as a practicing psychiatrist and serving on mental health boards and organizations, Dr. Truehart also serves as deputy coroner, handling over 2,600 psychiatric commitments in St. Tammany Parish over the last two years.

The increasing numbers of homicides, suicides and fatal accidents has raised awareness of the role that coroners play in death investigations and autopsies. However, in the state of Louisiana, involuntary psychiatric commitments are a huge part of coroners’ responsibilities. In fact, commitments in St. Tammany occur at a proportionally higher rate than death investigations.

Access to adequate treatment and service has always been a concern. Yet, the problem has been exacerbated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It has become extremely difficult for people to get the mental health services they need quickly and appropriately—regardless of insurance coverage or ability to pay.

As Mental Health Director at the St. Tammany Coroner’s Office, Dr. Truehart has gone beyond the act of psychiatric commitments. She has worked to address the issues and challenges the mentally ill face on a daily basis. In fact, providing access to quality mental heath care is one of her greatest passions.

“One of the first things we need to do, is to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness,” she said. “Most everyone in the community knows someone, or has been impacted by someone with a mental illness. We need to look for opportunities to treat not just the patients, but to provide help for families and loved ones as well.”

According to Dr. Truehart, when mental illness is left undiagnosed or untreated, the consequences can be far reaching. Impacts range from drug and alcohol abuse, family dysfunction, unemployment, violence and suicide.

“For me, performing involuntary psychiatric commitments is more than a job requirement, it is part of a much larger societal issue. It is only one step in a very long, arduous process of recovery,” she said. “When we work in partnership with health professionals in our community, we can improve the chances for recovery tremendously.”

Dr. Truehart is involved with the Behavioral Task Force set up by
Parish President Pat Brister to address mental health issues in St. Tammany and the Northshore. The group consists of representatives from the Coroner’s Office, 22nd Judicial District Court, Florida Parishes Human Services Authority, and other notable agencies and organizations that have a vested interest in improving access to quality mental health care in St.Tammany. Together with important work she does for non-profit groups such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and STOPS (St. Tammany Outreach for the Prevention of Suicide (STOPS), Dr. Truehart welcomes the busy schedule because she knows that real lives are being helped. “I am fortunate to work with extremely dedicated agencies and colleagues. Together we have reached a pivotal point where we are raising awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention, especially among the young people in our community,” she said.

Dr. Truehart will be the first to tell you that the position as Mental Health Director is a dream job for her. It encompasses her professional goals, her leadership skills and her passion for bringing mental health resources to the community. So why is this wife and mother walking away from her dream job to run for the position of St. Tammany Coroner?

“I never thought I would be running for office,” she said. “But there was no one I knew or trusted to step up to the plate. Being in the Coroner’s Office, and being a concerned citizen, I know what is at stake. I am in a position to restore public trust—to bring professionalism, quality and transparency to the position.”

Noting that death investigations are also an important part of the Coroner’s Office, Dr. Truehart said she is committed to utilizing the best investigative practices to assist the law enforcement professionals in St. Tammany. To that end, in addition, communications and cooperation with the Sheriff’s Office are also a priority.

“My dad, who is one of the smartest people I know, is convinced that the vast majority of the world’s problems are from miscommunication,” she said. “I understand how vital it is that there is a clear and open line of communication and can use my leadership skills and psychiatric training to help make that happen.”

Because of her work in the judicial system and with law enforcement, Dr. Truehart said she has a unique perspective on the collaborative roles the offices play. “Just as we work together with regard to mental health issues, we need to work together with death investigations.”

While her experience, training and unique perspective are a perfect fit for the Coroner’s Office, Dr. Truehart admits the decision to run was not an easy one. She and her husband, David, an international airline pilot, made the decision together after “long conversations and prayerful consideration.” Because of his flight schedule, the couple wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy for their eight-year-old son Matthew.

“My mom (well-known Slidell dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth McBurney), was a great role model. Not only did she teach me to be a kind and compassionate physician, she showed me how to successfully manage career and family. Every decision I make is in the best interest of my family,” she said.

I want people to know not just about my qualifications, but about who I am as a person—a person of integrity and honesty, a good mother, wife and friend.

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