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One transformation at a time

September 1, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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Suzanne Clifford forges multi-sector collaborations to inspire recovery and transform the system

An engineer at heart, Suzanne Clifford has always looked at ways to improve the systems and processes around her. But she has also been fascinated since her youth by the fact that people with mental illness “have both a disease and some amazing abilities.” So it was only a matter of time before these two passions culminated in a successful career in behavioral healthcare.

After completing a bachelor's in industrial and systems engineering and a master's in business administration, Clifford worked in medicinal research for Eli Lilly and Company at their headquarters in Indianapolis. She focused on developing new medications for people with chronic conditions, including mental illness, and identifying the consumer needs that the medications must meet.

“As an engineer, you think about how to improve things so they work more efficiently and effectively,” she says. “I realized that systems thinking could transform healthcare and social services because it was very fragmented.”

In 2003, though she had no previous experience in government, Clifford was approached by the governor's office to work as the director of the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction. “They were looking for someone really passionate about behavioral health,” she says. “I had to go for it.”

Old partners for new challenges

Clifford left her long career at Eli Lilly to oversee Indiana's six state psychiatric hospitals and behavioral health services in 92 counties. She also had the opportunity to work with the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) and SAMHSA at the federal level.

“I served on the NASMHPD board and worked on a lot of policy issues,” Clifford says. “I realized that there were a lot of things that needed to be improved at the state and community levels, and some pretty big funding and policy issues at the federal level.”

Realizing the scope of reform needed to create a better behavioral health system, Clifford decided in 2005 to leave her government position and return to her passion: creating more effective systems for those who need them most.

“I always like to be where I can add the most value,” she says. “And I decided to form a company to focus on the transformation of the behavioral health system.” Inspiring Transformations, Clifford's consulting company, focuses on improving the behavioral health system, one collaboration at a time.

Shortly after its formation, Eli Lilly approached her with a challenge: implementing a consumer-focused effort that would bring “the whole community together to solve a tough problem.” Always integrating consumers and families in her work, Clifford relied on them to determine what the focus would be.

“Consumers said that one of the top things they wanted to achieve was financial stability and employment,” she recalls. “They also wanted the friendships gained through stable employment and an identity beyond just ‘patient.’”

Bringing community mental health centers together with private businesses and other public agencies, Clifford launched a consumer employment initiative that is still active today. Not only does this effort identify compatible job matches for consumers, it also operates a re-training program to educate workers in key areas identified by Indiana's economic development strategy.

“If you see somebody who would've been in jail with a job or apartment, the transformation is amazing,” Clifford says. “The confidence, the changes in their identity and expectations of life when you give them a little hope are priceless.”

Formula for success

While Clifford believes in designing programs around “the consumers’ life goals, not their treatment goals” to truly promote recovery, she knows that the behavioral health system at the local, state, and federal levels makes these goals difficult to realize.

Because of this, Clifford continues advocacy efforts at the state and federal levels to realign policies and funding systems to better reflect recovery. Her hope is that the collaborative model she has found successful at the local level will work at state and federal levels as well.

“Taking the model that's worked at the community level of working with broad coalitions can also be used at a state level and a federal level to focus on a very specific goal, like integrating behavioral health and primary care,” she says. “It's more complicated at those levels, but it can be done.”

Clifford also finds reaching beyond resources exclusive to behavioral healthcare to be helpful. For example, she didn't want to take funding away from treatment programs for her employment initiative, so she “blended a lot of different types of funding, such as vocational rehabilitation funding and grants,” to make it work.

Similarly, she knows that the authorities whose support she needs to accomplish her goals are not always eager to invest limited resources and time in behavioral health initiatives. But when she spells out the bottom line for them, they can be persuaded.

“When I'm able to tell them about people who were completely dependent on government systems who now pay taxes and contribute to economic development, that's when they start to get excited,” she says. “We [need to do] a good job of articulating how behavioral health has a great business case and that it's a terrific investment.”

Behavioral Healthcare 2010 September;30(8):48