After three years of service as commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), David T. Jones will be stepping down on Friday. This change in leadership comes at a pivotal time as the COVID-19 global pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated long-standing challenges while also creating new and unique risks. Communities have been left tremendously vulnerable, and strong leadership will be critical to our collective resilience.
As we look toward the future of behavioral health in Philadelphia, the new commissioner must be ready to tackle complex problems so that all Philadelphians can achieve optimal health and wellness. The Scattergood Foundation considers key areas related to behavioral health that can guide the search committee in its efforts to select new leadership for DBHIDS:
Racial justice: Renewed calls for racial justice have highlighted how systemic racism has impacted the health and well-being of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Philadelphia has a majority-nonwhite population, and many people of color seek services through DBHIDS. Interventions across the spectrum from health promotion to treatment must use a racial equity lens. For instance, efforts toward building awareness of trauma and its impacts must consider how racism causes and compounds trauma, affecting emotional well-being. In addition, behavioral health agencies must employ providers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, and offer treatment options that are culturally and linguistically accessible.
COVID-19: The coronavirus and its ripple effects have taken a significant toll on mental health. Continuing to provide flexible, lifesaving services and support is crucial. The department must strengthen the crisis services system, continue to expand access to treatment, and partner with the School District to support children and families through the crisis.
Public safety: National calls to reimagine policing have included recommendations that mental health professionals play a larger role in public safety. The new commissioner can strengthen Philadelphia’s adoption of the Sequential Intercept Model, a framework for offering community-based responses for people with behavioral health disorders as they move through the criminal justice system.
Additionally, the new commissioner will be faced with addressing increased gun violence. Programs will be needed both to curb violence and to respond to communities in mourning, like the Network of Neighbors does.
The opioid epidemic: Philadelphia continues to grapple with high rates of opioid use disorder, and our rate of drug overdose deaths was the second-highest in the state in 2018. Improving access to medication-assisted treatment and establishing an overdose prevention site should be priorities of the new commissioner.
Data: Data-driven decision-making is essential to changing systems in meaningful ways. The new commissioner must evaluate the existing provider network to understand accessibility of treatment options and quality of care. They should draw on data examining social determinants of health — the conditions in places where people live, learn, work, and play that impact wide-ranging health outcomes (e.g., quality of education, affordable housing) — to gain a deeper understanding of risks, and how we can use existing community assets to meet needs. The economic downturn resulting from COVID-19 requires the city and providers to do more with less. Utilizing data effectively can help DBHIDS to wisely allocate funds and thoughtfully care for communities.
Collaboration: Addressing our most significant challenges will require the new commissioner to work collaboratively and break down silos. They should allocate staff time toward coordination, and create strategic data sharing across all Health and Human Services Departments, the Police Department, the School District, and others.
Collaborating with diverse stakeholders to set DBHIDS priorities must also be prioritized in order to increase oversight and transparency for the system. The new commissioner can diversify the DBHIDS advisory board to engage people who use services, their family members, behavioral health provider agencies, city and private employers, workforce development agencies, physical health providers, and academic and community partners.
Workforce: Peer specialists have proven vital assets to the behavioral health workforce, but remain undervalued. These positions should earn a living wage and have opportunities for advancement. The new commissioner can work to develop a certification and career ladder so that peers can be truly integrated into the behavioral health workforce.
Prevention and well-being: Significant investments have been made in prevention and early intervention programs like Healthy Minds Philly and Mental Health First Aid. The new commissioner must build upon these efforts to strengthen mental health assets for all Philadelphians.
DBHIDS has a budget of over $1 billion, and the power to transform lives and communities. The Scattergood Foundation remains steadfast in our commitment to partnering with the Mayor’s Office, DBHIDS, the provider network, and the community to implement these recommendations and more, for the well-being and quality of life of all Philadelphians.
Joe Pyle is the president of the Scattergood Foundation. Kate Williams is the chair of the board of directors of the Scattergood Foundation.