An Interview with Tom Watkins

Aug 10, 2016 by


Michael F. Shaughnessy

EdNews recently caught up with Tom Watkins the creative and innovative former Michigan State Superintendent of Schools (2001-05) who is a China expert,( former Michigan State Deputy and Director of the Mental Health Department and now President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority(– one of the largest public community mental health organizations in the nation. Tom has been extremely busy since we last talked.

  1. Your name says “Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority”, but you are involved in everything from mental illness, substance abuse, bullying, suicide, autism, gambling, human trafficking and more…what does this have to do with mental health?
  • DWMHA is a safety net organization that provides a full array of services and supports to provide empowerment to persons within our behavioral health system. Serving over 80,000 citizens in Detroit and Wayne County with mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities and substance use disorders.
  • Mental illness and the impact it has affects us all. Our mantra is to “put people first”. People come to us from all walks of life, in need of care.

We have an exceptional community board constantly striving to be:

* consumer and community focused

* data driven and

* evidence based

  1. How are you helping to educate the community about mental health?
  • In an effort to help our communities better understand mental illness, about 2 years ago we started a campaign about “Mental Health First Aid” which is designed to teach people methods of assisting someone in the early stages of developing a mental health challenge or in a mental health crisis.
  • Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) will give people the knowledge of the potential risk factors and warning signs for a range of mental health problems, including: depression, anxiety/trauma, psychosis and psychotic disorders, substance use disorders and self-injury.
  • Also, gives the skills, resources and knowledge to assess a situation, select and implement appropriate interventions, and help the individual connect with professional care.
  • Over the course of the last 2 years we have trained nearly 10,000 people including first responders, clergy, school personnel and the general public. DWMHA’s Mental Health First Aid training program received the National Community Impact Award from the National Council for Behavior Health.
  • The free 8 hour course is taught through DWMHA in English and Spanish.


  1. How does DWMHA play a role in our school systems?
  • DWMHA has established over 70 School-Based Programs that work cooperatively with local schools and school counseling centers to provide greater access to mental healthcare services to adolescents in Wayne County schools.
  • DWMHA continues to invest in local youth for the 2nd summer by devoting $1.4 Million in youth employment programs through Mayor Mike Duggan’s Grow Detroit’s Young Talent Program, the Downriver Community Conference and a host of communities around Wayne County.
  • This year’s program includes a 25 hour training component for all young people in mentoring, bullying, conflict management, Youth Mental health First Aid, QPR Training (Suicide Prevention), SUD education & prevention, and HIV/AIDS education awareness.
  1. Does DWMHA have services to help young mothers and families who may be experiencing mental health issues?
  • Infant Mental Health Services are available for pregnant women, parents with a child between ages 0-3, and parents with mental health concerns.
  • Infants experiencing low birth weight, eating or sleeping difficulties, delays in developmental milestones, failing to thrive. Infants & toddlers with emotional or behavioral challenges.
  • DWMHA offers a variety of intensive, short-term individual, family and group counseling services to youth, parents and families including: Conflict/Resolution, Grief & Loss, School/Truancy, Anger/Management, LGTBQ and much more…
  1. I understand there have been some changes to Autism Benefits. What are they and how can I get involved?

We are fortunate to have a Lt Governor, Brian Calley who is supportive and knowledgeable about supporting persons with disabilities to live fully inclusive, self-determined lives. He has been exceptional to work with around autism and other disability issues.

  • Previously, Autism Benefits were for children until they turned 6 years old. But as of January 2016 that benefit goes until you turn 21.
  • DWMHA works with eight Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Benefit Providers
  • ABA is an intensive, behaviorally-based treatment that uses various techniques to bring about meaningful and positive changes in the communication, social interaction, and repetitive/restrictive behaviors that are typical of ASD.
  • Lt. Gov. Calley, a well-known advocate for Autism Awareness created and chairs the Michigan Special Education Reform Task Force, established in 2015. The task force is charged with recommending reforms to Michigan’s special education system to help children with special needs reach their full potential. The group’s recommendations covered topics ranging from limiting the use of seclusion and restraint on students to handling emergency situations, and reinstating an appeals process for special education complaints.
  • To receive ABA services in Wayne County, the child must be screened. Either the child’s Primary Care Physician or the DWMHA Access Center can help start this process.
  1. How are mental health consumers involved and highlighted in your operations?
  • We have our Constituents’ Voice advisory committee that reports to the President and CEO, a consumer driven body with respect to the design, delivery, implementation, and evaluation of mental health programs and services in Wayne County.
  • As a result of the Constituents’ Voice efforts over the last year, nearly $5000 was collected and ten people received up to $500 each to pursue their community inclusion goals (i.e.: continued education, start-up businesses, etc).
  • Sheldon Hill, a DWMHA Peer Mentor and Contractor, was selected to receive a 2016 Voice Award from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). He was only one of five selected nationally out of 2,000 nominees. The awards are aimed at highlighting individuals who educate the public about behavioral health, and those who demonstrate resilience and recovery, while adding meaning to their communities.
  1. Does DWMHA offer special training to law enforcement and first responders?

In addition to training our Wayne County law enforcement and first responders in Mental Health First Aid, DWMHA began this year with training them and equipping them with Opioid Overdose Kits containing the drug Naloxone (the opioid overdose antidote approved by the FDA).

  • Opioid overdose deaths represent a public health crisis requiring innovative, evidence-based responses. These deaths represent a major and preventable threat to public health.
  • Since, the training began four lives have been saved after law enforcement administered the life-saving drug.
  • The Opioid Overdose Training and Kits will soon expand to our community partners.
  1. If someone is in a mental health crisis how does DWMHA help?
  • 800-241-4949 is our 24Hr Helpline for someone who is in a mental health crisis.
  • DWMHA awarded over $13.2 Million to offer Mobile Crisis Stabilization Services and established C.O.P.E (Community Outreach for Psychiatric Emergencies) which is a 24-hour, community-based, face-to-face Mobile Crisis Stabilization Teams that provides services in emergency departments to the residents of Wayne County experiencing a behavioral health crisis. Triaging most patients within 3 hours.
  • Psychiatric evaluations, crisis intervention, pre-admission screening and suicide risk assessment, pharmacological management, determination of clinical eligibility and more.
  1. DWMHA covers mental health, but you also cover Substance Use. How are these related, and how do you help communicate the programs and services offered to the public?
  • Michigan ranks 18th in the nation for overdose deaths
  • We often see people who are dually diagnosed with a substance use disorder as well as a mental illness. Additionally, people with mental health disorders are more likely than people without mental health disorders to experience an alcohol or substance use disorder.
  • One of the most stigmatized populations in society is still those with substance use disorders.
  • In 2014 DWMHA integrated treatment of Wayne County’s substance use disorder population.
  • DWMHA’s SUD Oversight Policy Board designated specific state funding to help educate the public about the dangers of drugs to ourselves and our community. Dozens of these billboards can be found on major freeways, roads, in neighborhoods and on buses. They have been around for over a year in English, Spanish and Arabic.
  • Ongoing PSA’s, news articles, feature stories, community health fairs, town hall meetings, school presentations, etc.
  • DWMHA services have one central access point through our 24Hr Crisis Helpline 800-241-4949
  1. I understand you helped produce a documentary on anti-stigma that aired on NBC and was nominated for an Emmy Award and other national recognition.
  • Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labelled by their illness they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes create prejudice which leads to negative actions and discrimination.
  • Education and awareness about mental illness is the best way to combat stigma.
  • Mental illness can impact all genders, classes, races, zip codes.
  • One in four have a mental illness. More than 61 million people.
  • Nearly a quarter of those with mental illness have it in its most serious forms: depression, schizophrenia, bipolar. These individuals have a higher risk for suicide.
  • Many don’t want to think about these startling realities, but everyone is affected, whether personally, through relationships, or economically
  • By not thinking about it, we make life harder for these individuals.
  • We owe it to our families, our friends, and our communities to stand up for individuals with mental illness
  • One of the most stigmatized populations in society is those with substance use disorders. Too often these individuals wind up in jail or on the streets, rather than in treatment.
  • DWMHA has two documentaries “Opening Minds, Ending Stigma,” which chronicles the lives of those living with mental illness in our community. The documentaries received national attention and were nominated for an Emmy by the National Academy Television Arts and Sciences and an
  • A mental illness is not a character flaw. It is caused by genetic, biological, social and environmental factors. Seeking and accepting help is a sign of strength.
  • You can do a lot to end mental health stigma in our society; starting with the way you act and treat others. You can nurture an environment that builds on people’s strengths and promotes good mental health. Avoid labeling people, learn the facts about mental health and treat people with mental illnesses with respect and dignity. Watch it here:


  1. Do you have special trainings if you think someone is contemplating suicide?
  • DWMHA has FREE Suicide Prevention training available for all community members to recognize the warning signs of suicide crisis and how to Question, Persuade and Refer someone to help. This gatekeeper training teaches you three steps to help save a life.

Q : Recognize the warning signs of suicide

P : Know how to offer hope

R : Know how to get help and save a life

  • The free training is offered to help reduce suicidal behaviors and save lives by providing innovative, practical and proven suicide prevention training.

Visit for more information.

  • Suicide amongst youth has increased by 300% since 2010, and has gone from being the third leading cause of death, to the second in those ages 15-24.
  • Risk factors: major depressive episode; substance use or abuse, such as alcohol or cocaine; divorce or widowed; recent loss (such as losing a job, or a loved one); physical illness and chronic pain.
  • In Wayne County, the crisis line number is 800-241-4949
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anywhere in the US: 800-273-TALK (8255).
  1. Is it true you have generated tens of millions of new resources for Detroit and Wayne County through better data and management?

Yes. We are very proud of being good stewards of taxpayer’s resources and have:

  • Generated $30 million in new Medicaid resources for Detroit/Wayne County
  • Redirected over $20 million to provide a $1/hour increase to direct care staff who make slightly over minimum wage caring for extremely vulnerable persons
  1. Where can people learn more about what you and your team have accomplished for persons with disabilities?

  1. Is there anything else you want to add?

Yes, I am extremely proud of my Board of Directors recognized the man-made water/ health crisis in Flint and reached out to the Genesee Health System and contributed $500,000 to help the people of Flint deal with the behavioral health issues associated with the crisis.

Now, clearly we could have effectively used these resources in our own community– but when a man made tragedy hit our neighbors in Flint– our community minded board stepped up to lend a helping hand– that is the value of a public community mental health system.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.