The Missouri Department of Mental Health has a new director this month.
Keith Schafer retired at the end of June after about 16 years as the Director of the Department of Mental Health, first from 1986 to 1994 and returning in 2007. The new Director is Mark Stringer, who has worked in the department the past 16 years.
Schafer says as he leaves, the Department will continue work to reach people who need help earlier in life.
“If you are mentally ill you will tend not to understand your illness at first as a young adult, you will tend to fight your illness and fight the medications that are being prescribed for you because they are very, very powerful medications with a lot of side effects, and so you simply don’t hit our system until you’re in your late 30s, early 40s,” said Schaefer. “What Mark has got to do in the next few years is he’s got to move that baton back and make absolutely sure that he can reach people when they’re 20, 22, 23 years old, because if we can do that we can certainly minimize the impact on those young adults.”
The Department is aiming to improve in that area while working within the Medicaid program, with legislative support.
“[The legislature] recommended that we seek a waiver, a Medicaid waiver, in which we can start reaching out to 18 to 35-year-old young adults,” said Schafer. “If Mark can do that … it’ll reshape the landscape for mental health.”
Stringer told Missourinet he has some very smart people working on that waiver.
“We have a pretty aggressive timetable. If we can pull this off, we would actually like to implement this waiver July 1 of next year,” said Stringer.
Stringer also wants to improve how Missouri works with people who suffer from both mental illness and developmental disability.
“Those are the people that really fall through the cracks, or they’ll languish in jails or hospitals for weeks or months or in some cases even years, when they should be in the community somewhere,” said Stringer. “We’ve got to find a better way to serve those people.”
Schafer also reminds people as he retires that very few people who suffer from mental illness are dangerous.
“The vast majority of people who are mentally ill are victims or people who are suffering very badly. There are a few people who are extremely troubled with paranoia and other issues, and they can be dangerous to society.”
Both men say the beginning of work to replace Fulton State Mental Hospital, portions of which date back to 1937, is a major achievement that both have worked toward for years.
“That was really cool,” said Schafer. “We’ve actually been talking about replacing Fulton State Hospital even in 1986 … we simply couldn’t afford to take on Fulton State Hospital at the time.”
Schafer doesn’t know what his long-term future holds, but right now he’s spending some time learning French.
“I have a little granddaughter who’s coming over from France. She’s going to be five years old when she’s here,” said Schafer. “I’m going to spend the month of July into early August trying to learn French and trying to keep up with her.”
Schafer said he also writes some and expects to stay somewhat involved in issues related to mental health.