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JANUARY 06, 2016

Gates fights for mental health patients’ rights


Heathers Gates’ advocacy for the mentally ill emerged from a college class on mental health law that required her to volunteer at Northampton State Hospital in Massachusetts. It was 1978.

“I was so appalled by what I saw there that I really decided at that point I wanted to get involved in trying to change the way people with mental illness were treated,” said Gates, who has been president and CEO of Windsor-based Community Health Resources, or CHR, for 22 years. “It was kind of the caricature of what we think of as an old institution: horrible conditions, very poor treatment, just really pretty horrendous.”

While in college, she met attorneys who where suing Massachusetts to close the hospital, which eventually shuttered in 1993. Then they created community-based programs for patients instead.

“So from that point on, I got involved in working in the mental health system and, in particular, in the community mental health system trying to advocate and create programs for people with mental illness living in the community,” said Gates, who worked as a legal advocate at the hospital, got her MBA and moved into the management/provider aspect of mental health.

She joined CHR in 1993 from the Department of Mental Health in western Massachusetts, where she worked about five years as a managed service system director overseeing community services.

Since arriving at CHR, she has expanded its reach, programs and size, growing from a $3 million annual budget to $50 million today. It has more than 80 programs in 32 locations, 650-plus employees and serves 20,000 children, families and adults annually in central and eastern Connecticut.

Its services are far-reaching, including mental health and addiction services, housing, foster care, outpatient clinics with same-day service, case management and the state’s largest behavioral health home to coordinate patients’ mental and physical health care, an important link since behavioral health affects physical health and life span. People with serious mental health issues live an average 25 years less than the general population.

“We are literally the most comprehensive behavioral-health provider in the state of Connecticut,” Gates said. “We provide every service other than inpatient that an individual with a serious mental health or addiction disorder would need in order to help them deal with their treatment.”

Gates is passionate about advocating at the state level for good public policy for people with mental illness and substance disorders and was instrumental in the recent formation of the behavioral health home model in the state to improve coordination with and access to primary care for people with mental health issues, thus improving their physical health and reducing healthcare costs.

She chaired the work group that worked with state agencies to create the design for the behavioral health homes statewide and piloted some of the concepts beforehand to shape the behavioral health home planning process.

“The concept of a behavioral health home is that your behavioral health practitioner is the person you want to help coordinate your [primary] care,” Gates said. “So instead of coordinating from primary care into behavior health, it’s coordinating from behavioral health out into the larger primary care system in order to help you get the primary care you need to be healthier.”

Paul DiLeo, chief operating officer at the state Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, said Gates was key to the behavioral health home service delivery model happening. “I believe we could never have gotten there without her work,” he said.

Gates has also been a statewide and national leader on working to diminish stigma and discrimination for people with mental health or addiction disorders, DiLeo said. He called Gates “a highly dynamic, highly intelligent leader, not just of CHR, but of the whole behavioral health system in Connecticut because of her work at the legislature and her advocacy work beyond CHR.”

Said Gates: “I just am passionate about standing up for people who are diagnosed with mental illness and substance use disorders because they get discriminated against a lot. Mostly people just need access to treatment and they need help. And it’s unfortunate there’s a stigma associated with it because it does prevent people from seeking help when it could actually make a difference in their life.”

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