Advocates, state officials and service providers are all mourning the passing of the state’s lead official for mental health services, Steve Jordan, last week.

By Rose Hoban

When news began to spread last week of the death of Steve Jordan, head of the North Carolina Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, people’s email boxes began to light up around the state.

Jordan Headshot
Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services leader Steve Jordan was killed last week while riding his bicycle. Image courtesy NC DHHS.

“It was really a shock,” said Laurie Coker, the head of the North Carolina Consumer Advocacy, Network and Support Organization, said of Jordan, who was killed when his bicycle was struck by a tractor trailer on July 4.

One of the reasons Jordan’s death hit Coker so hard was because advocates like her felt they had found a sympathetic ear in state government.

“You don’t feel like you’re being listened to when you talk to many leaders,” Coker said. “To us as consumers who had sought out meetings with Division leadership, we felt like Steve actually listened as if our input was truly valuable.”

“He was one of these guys who came alongside you and give you tips on how to advocate better,” said Coker, who also noted Jordan’s self-deprecating humor with appreciation.

That’s not the usual attitude held by many advocates for mental health services in North Carolina, where a decade of turmoil and constant change has produced  profound distrust between state officials and the people they serve.

But that’s part of why Jordan got his job, said former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Lanier Cansler.

Cansler said he kept hearing Jordan’s name when he was looking for someone to head the Division. He wanted someone who was respected and someone with experience providing care and services in the developmental disability community.

Jordan started out as a mental health worker at Southern Pines Hospital in Charleston, SC, and spent years working with people with developmental disabilities. Before he was hired by Cansler, Jordan headed ResCare-North Carolina, an agency that provides a variety of services for people with developmental disabilities and their families.

“We needed someone who understood what it was like in the grassroots, trying to serve the population, and who knew the issues,” said Cansler who also said Jordan brought an upbeat, positive attitude to his work, even when outside forces made it difficult.

“Sometimes the legislature goes off in their own direction, and we have to deal with it,” Cansler said. “Sometimes in following those policies it was not always easy… he was always upbeat, always very positive, always had ideas of how we could do things better.”

“Coming from the private sector, it wasn’t an easy transition,” said Dave Richard, head of the ARC of North Carolina.

Richard said he and Jordan sometimes disagreed strongly about the changes the state was making in the mental health system, but the disagreements were always marked with respect.

“We’d argue vigorously. He’d listen, sincerely, to try to see what he could do to help to address the issues he raised,” Richard said. “But if he couldn’t change things, he’d tell you the truth, not string you along. He’d tell you what he could and couldn’t do.”

RIchard recounted the ARC’s last annual meeting, in October, 2011, where Jordan came and presented to families of people with developmental disabilities. Then Jordan took questions for more than two-and-a-half hours.

“He took tough questions,” Richard said. “What it showed to us is that there was no question that Steve was committed to the people in the system. and trying to do everything he could to make a difference.”

“It’s a real loss for the state,” said Coker. “Especially at this time when there’s so much chaos and we’re looking for people who we can have faith in as we move forward.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...