January 17, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
Gray announces new Department of Behavioral Health
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D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Mayor Vincent Gray on Jan. 11 announced the creation of a new agency designed to better coordinate treatment and services for city residents with mental health and substance use-related disorders.

The Department of Health’s Addiction, Prevention and Recovery Administration and the Department of Mental Health will merge into the new Department of Behavioral Health. Gray stressed during a press conference at the Wilson Building that treating mental illnesses and substance use at the same time leads to a number of positive outcomes that include reduced rates of drug abuse and arrests and less homelessness.

“We know that treatment is effective and people do recover, especially if recovery services are inclusive of the continuum of care,” the mayor said. “We’re putting the best system in place that we believe can make that happen. The overall vision of an integrated system is to effectively serve individuals with co-occurring disorders whether they seek help for mental health or substance use disorders.”

DMH Director Steve Baron and Dr. Saul Levin, interim director of the Department of Health, were among those who spoke at the press conference.

“This creation of the Department of Behavioral Health makes perfect sense at this time,” Levin said. “While SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and myself as a psychiatrist obviously has believed that you cannot separate mental health and substance abuse from each other, it has taken the country in some ways a little bit longer to get to the idea of saying if we can finally get the co-occurring disorders of mental health and substance abuse being treatment from the moment they enter either the prevention or for treatment and then the recovery, we will get a lot better outcomes coming into it.”

Gray noted more than 35,000 people in the nation’s capital currently receive treatment for either mental health or substance use-related issues. Up to an estimated 50 percent of the aforementioned Washingtonians live with both conditions at the same time.

SAMHSA also estimates mental and substance use disorders will surpass physical diseases as the major cause of disability around the world by 2020.

“We want to challenge assumptions that blame individuals or create misunderstandings and prejudices that make people reluctant to seek treatment,” Gray said. “Instead we are taking a public policy approach based on facts and a scientific understanding of mental illness and substance use disorders. We are focused on prevention, recovery and building healthy communities as a fundamental outcome of all of this.”

LGBT advocates and other health care providers in the city appeared to welcome the mayor’s announcement.

“We know that LGBTQ youth are at greater risk for both mental health challenges and issues as well as to report substance abuse and alcohol abuse issues,” Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, which received a DMH grant to provide an LGBT youth-specific suicide awareness and prevention program, told the Washington Blade. “So if combining these two departments will streamline the process for youth to get connected to services, then that’s good news.”

“This merger is very promising in that, under a new department, federal and local funding for mental health and addictions services will more closely follow patients’ needs,” Whitman-Walker Health Executive Director Don Blanchon added. “It is a good step forward for D.C. residents in need of such important services.”

Gray has yet to announce a director for the Department of Behavioral Health that he said will officially begin operation on Oct. 1.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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