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#IAmHHS: A Personal Loss Motivates Drive for Integrated Care

Cindy Kemp helps people with serious mental illnesses get the help, treatment services and recovery supports they need, so they can lead healthy lives.

Can you imagine having a chronic condition like diabetes and not being able to receive the treatment that you need? Or not knowing where or how to get treatment or having a long wait for services when you have a medical crisis?

Well that is exactly what happens to millions of people with serious mental illness.

My job is to try and change that, by helping people with serious mental illnesses get the  help, treatment services and recovery supports they need, when they need it, so they can lead healthy lives of purpose in the community.

My name is Cindy Kemp and I work for SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, where I’m the chief of the Community Support Programs Branch in the Center for Mental Health Services.

Before I came to SAMHSA I worked in behavioral health at the local level in Arlington County, Virginia, for more than 30 years — building programs for people with serious mental illness and substance use disorders.

That experience informs everything I do.

My job at SAMHSA is to listen to people with serious mental illness, their families and providers in local communities to inform our programs. I administer almost 200 grants and contracts worth more than $55 million annually that help those communities deliver quality, evidence based mental health services.

That can mean anything from making sure people with serious mental illness can see a primary care doctor as well as a psychiatrist, training the police on how to interact with people with serious mental illness to divert them from jail when that’s appropriate, helping people find and keep employment to simply ensuring people have access to quality mental health treatment and recovery support services.

For example, one program that I helped get off the ground at SAMHSA has truly been one of the highlights of my career.

It's a National Demonstration program that’s implementing 67 new Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics in eight states to focuses on improving access to quality services. The states in the program are developing programs that improve and expand their crisis services, improve accessibility, provide high quality, evidence-based practice, and integrated and coordinated care for people across the life span, as well as measuring their outcomes.

It's a game changer.

People are getting the critical behavioral healthcare services they need, when and where they need them. And since this is a Medicaid demonstration, the funding to pay the expected cost of services is provided by the federal government.

While it's a bit premature to draw any conclusions the early signs are very encouraging. The paradigm shift is ensuring that individuals with behavioral health disorders and their families receive the treatment and services they need. For too long, people have faced discrimination, received limited or no treatment, or have just been ignored by society. Too often someone with mental health issues also has a substance use disorder, but they’re treated only for one or the other condition.

I know because it’s personally impacted my family. About a decade ago we lost my younger brother to mental illness and substance abuse. It was devastating, and his loss and the challenges he faced as a person motivate me every day. I truly believe that he would be alive today if he had had accessible, quality integrated care.

And that's really the bottom line, it's why I took a chance almost four years ago and left local government to come to SAMHSA, to have new and different challenges and to make an impact on a national level.

It's important to know that people with serious mental illness can and do recover -- there is opportunity and there is hope.  SAMHSA is helping to make this a reality, and I get to be a part of it all.

My name is Cindy Kemp, and I am HHS.

Cindy is one of more than 79,000 people who make HHS run every day. You can share her story and see others on Twitter and Facebook using #IAmHHS.


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