Seldom do we have a success story that spans 50 years of continuous excellence. Or one sustained almost entirely by volunteer toil and personal commitment. Or one that spans the entire history of modern mental healthcare, from the beginning of deinstitutionalization to the present. I am speaking of the Southern Regional Conference on Mental Health Statistics (SRCMHS), which celebrated its 50th anniversary late last year. Its organizers deserve our accolades and our emulation.
SRCMHS was formed by 14 southern governors in 1958 because they wanted to improve the quality of data and the quality of care provided to persons served in state mental hospitals. Operating through the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), they were responding to a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) initiative—the Model Reporting Area for Mental Hospital Statistics—developed to improve data quality and uniformity. A committee formed under the leadership of Cecil Wurster of Louisiana and later of NIMH recommended SRCMHS’s formation. What is very significant about this beginning is that excellence in mental health statistics was seen as necessary for delivering high-quality mental health services.
The first conference was held in 1959, focusing on uniform data reporting. This should sound familiar, as we still are working on this issue today. In fact, in the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s latest
Grading the States report released just this month, NAMI calls on SAMHSA to promote uniform data standards for collecting data at the state, county, and local levels. SRCMHS conference topics always have predated national concerns by several years, sometimes by decades. Topics have included:
• Planning for hospitals and centers (1964)
• Automated data and case registers (1965)
• Making data work for you (1971)
• Planning in mental health (1976)
• Outcome measures (1977)
• Working with special populations (1982)
• Managing case management (1988)
• Healthcare reform (1993)
• Value-based outcomes (1996)
• Implementing strategies for co-occurring disorders (2003)
• Transforming systems (2005)
In recent years, the annual program has been refocused in recognition of the growing need to use data and statistics in program operations. The new format, Dialogues on Behavioral Healthcare, proceeds from this premise. The focus of the 2008 conference, reinventing the behavioral health workforce, is a current national concern.
SRCMHS also holds another distinction. Although not generally known, the concept of mental health program evaluation was fostered and developed in SRCMHS during its first 25 years. By 1983, SRCMHS’s 25th anniversary, program evaluation was well established nationally by NIMH, and most states had developed program evaluation functions. Harold McPheeters, then director of mental health at SREB and a former Kentucky mental health commissioner, chronicled this progress for the 1983 conference.
The secret to SRCMHS’s success is the people who have volunteered their time, talent, and resources, year after year, to produce an outstanding program. Many heroes are associated with SRCMHS. In addition to Wurster and McPheeters, others include:
• Jack Holladay of Tennessee (now deceased) who organized and maintained the corporate entity
• Hillary Hamlin, a private consultant who served as program chair in 1983 and 1989
• Fred Newman of the University of Florida, who provided intellectual leadership
• Olivia Williams of South Carolina (now deceased)
• Carole Taff of Texas
• Deborah Westvold of Iowa
• Mary Smith of Illinois
• Vijay Ganju of Texas
• Randy Lemoine of Louisiana, SRCMHS’s current president
• Patricia Dunston of Washington, D.C.
• And many, many more
In addition to program excellence, a part of SRCMHS’s attraction is that the annual conference has been held in New Orleans for almost the entire past quarter century. For many of those years, it was held at the famous Bourbon Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter. Many attendees have fond memories of the hotel, its wonderful French restaurant, and the zydeco music played there. Other memories are of torrential rains; power outages that persisted for hours, delaying the program; outstanding restaurants in New Orleans; and, of course, the many lifelong friendships developed over the years.
I had the honor of serving as the 50th anniversary speaker at the 2008 meeting, where I recounted this rich history and recognized 50 years of outstanding contributions and achievements.
Going forward, the challenges facing SRCMHS are the same as those confronting the entire mental healthcare field:
• How to collect data on services provided outside of the specialty sector
• How to achieve effective integration with health statistics
• How to foster good data to empower consumers and debunk myths and people who attempt to manipulate data for their own advantage
• How to create a world in which good health is a human right for all
My hat is off to SRCMHS and all of its wonderful volunteers. One cannot overestimate their volunteer spirit, dedication, and love—all of these qualities are evident in what they have accomplished and in what they have contributed to our field.