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Know When to Fold ‘Em

Apr 21, 2017 by

Tom Watkins –

In life, as in poker, Kenny Rodgers reminds us of the challenge to “know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.”

Recently, I made the decision to “fold ‘em” by not accepting an extension to my contract to continue serving as President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority that I have led – along with an exceptional team – these last 4 years. August 31, 2017 will be my last day at DWMHA.

I am especially grateful to the DWMHA Board that hired and actively supported a great team’s efforts to strive to make the organization consumer and community-focused, data- driven, and evidence based.

I have enjoyed the time and opportunity given me by our community Board of Directors to help build and lead an exceptional team as we transitioned from the fledgling Wayne County Mental Health Agency into a more vibrant Mental Health Authority.

In 2013, I was hired to help unplug the old Wayne County Mental Health Agency, converting it to a separate authority. Imagine, if you will, an old telephone switchboard that has to unplug its human resources, legal, financial, community programs, and governance – moving from one old system and connecting to a new one – all without losing a single call. Yet, in our business the dropped calls would amount to 80,000 vulnerable citizens in Detroit and Wayne County – people with serious mental illnesses, intellectual and developmental disabilities and substance user disorders.

By any measure, today we are a significantly better and more functional organization.

In these intervening years, DWCMHA has paid off tens of millions of dollars in legacy debt, generated tens of millions of dollars in new revenue and increased direct care staff wages by over $2 an hour.

Along the way, we acquired a more professional work environment, integrated SUD services into our system of care – saving over $4 million in administrative costs – standardized provider rates, successfully re-bid our system of care, and established 23 crisis mobilization teams. We have also trained thousands of first responders and others in mental health first aid training, saved over 30 lives with our Naloxone First Responder training and received national recognition for these efforts from the National Council of Behavioral Health for our Mental Health First Aid Training. Recently we were recognized by NAMI for the production of two award-winning, anti-stigma documentaries including “Opening Minds Ending Stigma” (

All the while our team has continued to engage consumers, building strong community partnerships throughout Detroit and Wayne County.

The improvements to both operations and service are remarkable and universally acknowledged in our Annual Report ( with its many accomplishments and acknowledgments by such luminaries as Governor Rick Snyder and Lt. Governor Brian Calley, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Nick Lyon, the honorable Freddie G. Burton, Jr., Chief Judge of Wayne County Probate Court, the Mayor of Westland, William R. (Bill) Wild, Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, and countless other community partners to see the significant value that our organization has created to make a difference in the lives of those we serve.

New Leadership

The DWMHA Board members, half recommend by Detroit Mayor Duggan and half by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, are ultimately appointed by the Wayne County Commission who now have the responsibility and opportunity to select a new CEO to build on our collective success since becoming an Authority. Applications for the job are now being accepted electronically (see I fully expect the board to find and hire a new leader, who together with the board will take this exceptional, vital and needed behavioral health organization to new and greater heights.

As a system, what is needed is a focus on the value and dignity of the people we serve, to continue the struggle to eliminate stigma, support treatment efforts and continue to build important partnerships that maximize public resources that support, help, care for, and treat people in need – our family members, neighbors and friends with serious mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities and persons with substance use disorders. We need to continually remind ourselves it is about service, care support, and human decency – not power, control and politics.

There is no “I” In Team

Be clear, the strength and improvements at Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority is a result of a team effort.

There are so many people to thank, who care deeply and passionately about the work we do. There are truly too many to try to acknowledge individually and I because I am certain I might inadvertently leave an exceptional individual off the list and embarrass myself in the process, I’ll keep it to groups:

· Board of Directors and individual members, both past and present who encouraged, supported, challenged, and, when needed, prodded and chastised me to be better: Thank you! Your community service is needed and valued.

· An exceptional team of DWMHA professionals – from GED to Ph.D. and MD – I have learned from each of you. Your competence and professionalism are second to none. You embraced our person- centered and focused mission, keeping us on track along the way. Each of you has added value and made a difference – YOU are the foundation upon which greatness has been and will be built. Never shy away from doing the right thing.

· Community partners – from advocate organizations, first responders, community organizations, and activists, to faith-based community, city councils, mayors, police chiefs, universities, business and labor leaders. Also the foundations, our provider network, and the tapestry of the rich and diverse racial and ethnic organizations that help make our city, county, region, state, and nation stronger: Thank you. Many of you take the tax dollars we disperse and make service to people in our communities come alive. Without your values and commitment, the people who depend on us would truly suffer.

· I am very grateful to my PIHP and CMH colleagues, the MACMHB and its exceptional leadership along with state federal government officials – elected, appointed, and dedicated civil servants – all help make the system work for our neighbors, family, friends and fellow citizens in need.

Consumers and Advocacy Matters

To those who use the public mental health system and the families, friends, and advocates who support and love you, I wish to highlight your importance to me and our system of care. You and you alone, are what is important. Your courage, passion and desire to live (or help a loved one live) an authentic, self- directed life is and should remain, the North Star in all we do. Never shy away from demanding that we do better. It is only your expectations and demand for continuous improvement, and at times, revolution, that will force the system to produce change leading to progress.

Only you will assure that our tax dollars are invested in care and supportive treatment and not squandered on politics, profits, and layers of bureaucracy that enrich the system at the expense of you and the people you love. Your voice will keep the system honest and focused on people in need. Like the minutemen of our country’s early history, you need to be on guard and ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice as the 298 struggle continues to remind us.

So as one door in my life closes in a few months, others will surely open.

I am extremely proud of what we at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority have accomplished – together! I am honored to have had this opportunity to serve.

Tom Watkins  career transcends the public and private sector, having held leadership positions in nonprofits, politics, government, K-12 and higher education, business and behavioral health. He is a prolific writer, regularly published in local, state, national and international publications and is a sought-after expert on China.

Source: Know When to Fold ‘Em |

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