(Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a three-part series interviewing three candidates who have announced intentions to run for St. Tammany Coroner.)
By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – When Dr. Leanne Truehart confirmed her intentions to seek election as the next St. Tammany Parish coroner, she knew there would be one major hurdle to overcome.
Truehart has worked for the Coroner’s Office since July, 2012 when she was named the Mental Health Director and Deputy Coroner for Dr. Peter Galvan, the former parish coroner who resigned his position last year after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy and stealing public money. She understands there could be a natural connection between her and Galvan, and it is something she addresses immediately when being interviewed.
Truehart explained that while she did work for the Coroner’s Office in her dual roles, she was an independent contractor who was never named as having any connection to Galvan’s problems, and also had a difference of opinion with Galvan that left them barely talking over the past year.
“Dr. Galvan and I were barely on speaking terms the past year as his problems arose,” Truehart said. “It was a year before he resigned when we differed on a situation, and he had his executive director inform me Dr. Galvan said he didn’t want to ever have contact with me again. From that point forward, we barely talked for a year and I went about doing my job.”
Truehart understands that one of her biggest challenges in becoming the new coroner may be making it clear to the public she had nothing to do with Galvan’s problems, and like almost every employee in the office, was equally appalled at what was going on with the head of the department.
“I was never named in any document involving him, and for that matter, all the current employees at the Coroner’s Office have been cleared of any connection to his case—and all current employees assisted law enforcement during the investigation,” she explained.
Truehart said she decided to run for coroner after failing to find a candidate she could support who would take over and do the important work needed in that position.
“The Coroner’s Office needs someone with integrity who can restore the public trust, and even though I had been approached by many people wanting me to run, I never got into this field of work to run for public office, nor did I ever expect I would,” Truehart said. “But after I was unable to find a candidate I could support, I woke up the morning of Oct. 12 last year and immediately felt a strong sense that I needed to run. I have the experience, training and perspective to do this job.”
Truehart is a board certified psychiatrist and has served as the lead expert in the Coroner’s Office to evaluate and commit those with mental illnesses. While the parish suicide rate has garnered much attention, Truehart said the office performed 13 psychiatric commitments for every suicide there was.
“We have a real problem in St. Tammany with access to mental health care,” she said. “I’ve ordered over 2,600 commitments in two years, making it clear there is a serious mental illness issue in our parish. Most people know someone who has been diagnosed with some type of mental illness—including anxiety, depression, panic disorders, schizophrenia and more—and my goal is to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness, and help families and caregivers provide support to their loved ones.
“Individuals with undiscovered, untreated mental illness have a higher than normal probability to die by suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, have family disruption and unstable employment, be incarcerated, and in some cases, cause serious violence,” she said. “We have to address the lack of access to services, and I’ve spent years working in this area. I have the expertise and experience to help people with mental illness and even though I never aspired to public office, as coroner I know I can help in this situation.”
Truehart has the background to prove her passion for helping those with mental illnesses. After completing a psychiatry internship and residency at UCLA, she became an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, and in 2002, won the “Outstanding Teaching Award” and the “Excellence in Teaching Award” while founding two organizations to assist locals with mental illness and public health issues.
Now living in Mandeville, she operates a private practice in Covington, while volunteering her time to serve on the Executive Committee for the National Alliance of Mental Illness of St. Tammany (NAMI), serving on the Behavioral Health Task Force with the 22nd Judicial District Court, and with the North Shore Court Foundation.
“I have studied the suicide situation in St. Tammany extensively and have a plan for the public schools to help teens who are at risk,” she said.
Truehart said she also has the experience to bring transparency and trust back to the Coroner’s Office.
“I will use professionally recognized auditing practices so our tax dollars are used effectively and efficiently, and invest in technologies that ensure best practices are used for death investigation, and to ensure optimal levels of staff to perform the functions of the office,” she said.
Truehart was asked last year to train deputies with the Sheriff’s Office and agents of the FBI’s hostage negotiation team in how to interact and engage with individuals with mental illness.
As other candidates have also suggested, Truehart believes a more efficient Coroner’s Office could possibly open the door to lower the millage rate the department currently brings in to pay for the new office in Lacombe.
“We have an outstanding facility in St. Tammany now, but I think it has the potential to generate more revenue than we are bringing in,” she said. “That could, ultimately, allow the millage to be reduced for tax payers.”
Truehart is married with two sons.
(Ed. Note: Dr. Robert Muller and Dr. Adrian Talbot have also both announced intentions to run for St. Tammany coroner. Next week: Dr. Talbot’s interview.)