L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez explores mental health issues at packed Mind Matters, One Campus, One Book event

Steve Lopez

Gary Foster, producer of The Soloist, will participate in a discussion on Feb. 22

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez commended Cal State LA for its focus on mental health and said universities can play a key role in preventing students from suffering the fate of the subject of his best-selling book The Soloist.

“It’s important to have systems in place—particularly on college campuses,” Lopez told a rapt audience packed into the Los Angeles Room of the University-Student Union. “When you have people on campus and professionals who can help, it can make all the difference.”

Lopez’s comments came during a discussion sponsored by the Mind Matters initiative and One Campus, One Book. The goal of Mind Matters is to integrate inner well-being into the framework of University life as a means of supporting student success. 

The Soloist is the true story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. Ayers was a gifted classical musician enrolled at Julliard when he began to suffer from what later was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia.

In his Los Angeles Times columns, Lopez wrote about how mental illness transformed Ayers: from a promising, 20-year-old college student, into a homeless man living on Skid Row, playing a violin with two strings. The columns placed a face on mental illness for readers and increased awareness and discussion about mental health. Readers’ response was unparalleled. Emails flooded Lopez’s inbox. Readers sent violins, cellos, sheet music---all in a bid to help Ayers.

“It’s a ‘there but for the grace of God,’ story,” Lopez told the audience, in a talk that was at times moving and humorous. “People were rooting for Nathaniel and they were rooting for me to be able to help him.”

Efforts to help Ayers led Lopez to explore the problems in our nation’s mental health system that make it difficult for people to receive the help they need. Often the mentally ill end up in jail or prison.

“What happened was not by accident; we shut down mental health institutions across the land,” Lopez explained. “We never followed through with the promise of community clinics.”

Recovery is possible, Lopez said. But it takes outreach and supportive services.  With Lopez’s help, Ayers is now in a mental health rehabilitation facility. Ayers does not pity himself and continues to be devoted to music, the anchor in his life.

Those in the audience asked Lopez questions about policies relating to homeless people, the ethical challenges of writing about a person who is mentally ill, and about Ayers current state.

“Nathaniel found what we are looking for,” Lopez said. “We’re looking for our passion.”

Lopez encouraged the audience to look past generalizations about the homeless and those who are mentally ill. He and Ayers are friends. They have traveled to the White House and have appeared at conferences advocating for those with mental illness.

The Soloist was made into a movie starring Robert Downey Jr., and Jamie Foxx. Gary Foster, the producer of the movie, will participate in a discussion about transforming the book into a movie. The discussion will be held Monday, Feb. 22 at 6:30 p.m. in the Golden Eagle Ballroom.   

Photo: Steve Lopez. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores)

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