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Retiring mental health leader: Hospitals and politicians must step up, jails no place for treatment

Mental health administrators Nicole Lawson, Christina Nicholas, and Jillian Trumbell demonstrate at the Michigan Capitol
Rick Pluta
Mental health administrators Nicole Lawson, Christina Nicholas, and Jillian Trumbell demonstrate at the Michigan Capitol

More than 300 thousand people in Michigan depend on public mental health care, and the state is wrestling with the question of who should oversee and administer those services.

Michigan is debating whether mental health funding will be taken away from community mental health groups and transferred instead to private insurers in Michigan’s Medicaid Health plans.

Tom Watkins has played an important role in delivering services for people struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse disorders and developmental disabilities. Among many positions he’s held in a wide-ranging career, Watkins was the director of the Michigan Department of Mental Health under Governor Blanchard.

During the past four years, he’s been the director of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He's stepping down this week after deciding not to renew his contract.

On the decision not to renew his contract, Watkins says simply it’s time to move on to something different. He’ll spend time with his 90-year-old father and visit China. He eventually plans to reestablish his consulting business.

Watkins says the public mental health system in Michigan is doing great things to serve people in need, but there’s definitely room for improvement and a need for further investment. After Michigan decided to shutter numerous mental healthcare facilities in the 1990’s, Watkins says Michigan is now grappling with how it wants people in need of mental health services to be treated.

“We have to decide if we are really going to allow our jails and our prisons to become the de facto psychiatric facilities, which they have been in this state and across the nation,” Watkins said.

Past policy decisions have a way of catching up with us, Watkins says, and we’re in that moment now when it comes to providing mental health services. He says integration of care is the approach that makes the most sense, and what should be done.

“How do you separate your behavioral health, your mental health, your substance abuse [healthcare] needs, from your physical health? You’re one body, one soul,” Watkins said. “The question is not if, the question is how and when?”

He says Michigan should have a system of care that’s accessible, and transparent to the public, and shouldn’t be in the hands of private companies. Yet Watkins says private insurers shouldn’t be seen as the enemy, just that the values and initiatives of providing an integrated system of healthcare should be led by the public via the state government.

Listen to the entire conversation with Tom Watkins, who’s stepping down as Director of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, above. 

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