2010 Behavioral Health Champion: Robert E. Whaley | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation

2010 Behavioral Health Champion: Robert E. Whaley

July 1, 2010
by root
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“Until then, I hadn't realized that recovery was such a big deal. Then it hit me: We had a responsibility to make this work.”

Position: Executive Director

Organization: Southeast Behavioral Health Group

Location: La Junta, Colo., serving six southeastern counties

Services: Comprehensive outpatient mental health, substance abuse, wellness services, early childhood services, and nursing home services

Staff: 75

After 11 years as chief financial officer at Southeast Behavioral Health Group, Bob Whaley earned consideration for the job of executive director when it opened up in the late 1990s. Though he was trained in accounting and finance along with his MBA credentials, he had learned much about how the organization operated, its clinical programs, and had gotten to know dozens of the consumers that it served.

Bob got the job, but then realized something was wrong. “This agency was in trouble. We knew we were spending most of our resources on a small population of individuals affected by serious mental illness,” he recalls. “Our community was saying, ‘You don't have outpatient services, you don't have children's services, there's nothing for substance abuse treatment.’” Together with his staff and board, he looked for a better way forward-a way to better balance the financial needs of consumers' care with those of the community.

Research led Bob and his staff to a new approach called “recovery” that would place empowered consumers into the community, but with a framework of support. Financially, it was perfect. It would reduce the cost of care and free up resources for other tasks. But, Bob wondered: “Was it right? Was it a responsible thing to do?” He found the answer one evening, sitting in a shopping mall, where he noted that more than a few of the shoppers looked familiar. Finally, he realized: They were consumers from the agency, accompanied by case managers. “If it weren't for the case managers,” he says, “I wouldn't have known them from anyone else.”

“They are just like me,” he thought. “They have their days when they need support, but then, so do I. Our role is to support them in the lives they choose.” With help from Ed Knight, PhD, a schizophrenia survivor and recovery advocate, Bob and his staff built a recovery-focused plan. Bob won board approval for agency-wide training and set a date for program launch in 2000. “We figured that we could move our [120] people into the community within two years. But when they found out what we were going to do, everyone was asking, ‘Can I be next?’”

The moves were done in three months. Bob says that shortly thereafter, someone asked, “Are community leaders concerned?” “I replied that ‘they really didn't notice.’ And that was true. We worked with six counties, six different sheriffs, different communities, and the consumers never had problems. Our case managers kept in contact and provided help when needed, but most consumers got along fine.” Today, they still do: 80 percent of those who returned to their communities in 2000 remain in them-living independently, owning their own homes, many in relationships, some married, and virtually all working or volunteering their time. “It's not your life or mine, but it's a life that works,” says Bob. “It's their life.”

The value of the program-beyond its immediate financial sense and consumer appeal-didn't occur to Bob until, at Ed Knight's suggestion, he presented at a conference in 2002. But it wasn't just any conference-Bob spoke to the “coercion and control” track of a national consumer conference. The response was immediate, Bob recalls. “They could see there was a better way.”

“Until then,” he says, “I hadn't realized that recovery was such a big deal. Then it hit me: We had a responsibility to make this work for our clients and to communicate it to others, so they could benefit, too.” Joining other recovery advocates, Bob and his staff have made countless presentations since, with their own organization's success to offer as proof. Photo by Jeanne Ballard