Politically Speaking: Data-driven director tackles ‘the last stigma’ – mental illness

May 20, 2015 by

As the TV debut of a new documentary about mental illness in Michigan approaches, the bureaucrat who’s determined to end bureaucratic thinking at the state’s largest locally based mental health agency is receiving accolades in the media.

Tom Watkins, the unconventional director of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, has arranged the production of a half-hour documentary film, “Opening Minds – Ending Stigma,” that will air on Channel 62 in Detroit Saturday at 7 p.m. It can also be downloaded from the mental health authority’s website  (www.dwmha.com).

Among those taking part in the video, a bipartisan project, are Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, First Lady Michelle Obama, and the Snyder administration’s health and human services chief, Nick Lyon. As Watkins tries to right the ship at the financially strapped Detroit-Wayne agency, he knows that he must also raise public awareness about mental illness, to bring it out of the shadows.

As Jack Lessenberry noted in one of his recent Michigan Radio commentaries, mental illness may be this nation’s “last stigma” after a collective change of heart on gays, AIDS and a host of other categorizations that have pigeon-holed people.

More than 60 million people in this country suffer some type of mental health problem each year. Nearly 14 million of those live daily with its most serious forms – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. They are the vulnerable who keep their illnesses hidden, relying on underfunded treatment programs – or no treatment at all.

“Mental illness is no respecter of education, income or class – though not everybody in this society has equal access to treatment,” Lessenberry said. “African-American, Hispanic and Asian Americans use mental health services at less than half the rate of white Americans.

“… One of the smallest groups in society may also be among the most heavily affected – military veterans. Those now serving are less than 1 percent of the population. But nationwide, veterans account for 20 percent of all suicides. If this is an average day, 22 vets will kill themselves before (this day) is over.”

Let that sink in for a moment while you consider the other half of this story.

The ongoing overhaul of the Wayne County mental health system may serve as a pioneer in providing mental health programs more effectively and efficiently. At the helm is president and CEO Watkins, a problem-solving pragmatist who has no use for conventional thinking or partisan bickering.

Watkins has quite an interesting resume: former state mental health director; former state school superintendent; frequent guest columnist in numerous Michigan media outlets; and, most recently, a consultant who emerged as the leading advocate of greatly expanding Michigan companies’ business relationships with their counterparts in China.
At his new job, he has focused on the nuts and bolts – labor contracts, pension costs, service contracts, IT improvements. A little bit of everything. Watkins knows, better than most, how layers of bureaucracy can render well-intentioned programs and policies ineffective, at best.

His advocacy for data-driven, evidence-based management caught the eye of Detroit News writer Daniel Howes. In his Tuesday column, Howes noted that Watkins has “a bias for common sense.”

Here’s more from Howes:
“His mantra is worthy of repetition in the public sector, be it in a Wayne County facing looming financial disaster or a Detroit charged with executing a bankruptcy-imposed restructuring plan. First, use data, not ideology or emotion, to make decisions. Second, use evidence to judge the effectiveness of those decisions. Third, use both to keep the organization focused on the community and the customers, not internal bureaucratic needs or those of long-term contractors.”
So, what does all this mean for someone who is mentally ill and hanging on by a thread? For Watkins, who lost two brothers to suicide, the answer is based on results: If his agency helps one person – one family – it will have “added value and made a difference.”


You can watch a 2-minute preview of the documentary, which is sponsored by the Flinn Foundation, by clicking here.

Source: Politically Speaking: Data-driven director tackles ‘the last stigma’ – mental illness

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