This story is part of AL.comfrom the series “21 Alabamians who made a difference in 2021”, highlighting the people who have made our state a better place to live this year. Stories in this series will be posted every weekday from December 5 to 31. Find all the stories in the series as published here, and discover the Alabamians who made the difference in 2020 by clicking here.
He is quick to pass the credit on to others, and to be sure, the advances in mental health treatment in Alabama in recent years are beyond the reach of any one individual.
But Jeremy Blair was and remains a leader, and his vision for improved treatment options is now playing out across the state.
Blair is the CEO of Wellstone Behavioral Health – the largest and most comprehensive behavioral health care provider in northern Alabama, with headquarters in Huntsville and 12 locations in the region.
Blair has long advocated for treatment centers across the state for people with mental health emergencies. These centers would have overnight accommodation as well as weekly stays. Blair pointed out that for physical health concerns, there are a range of options – from walk-in doctors’ offices to hospital emergency departments.
For people with mental health crises, there were largely two immediate options: jail or a hospital emergency room. And neither was designed to deal with the problem.
Even as late as 2019, such facilities seemed like an unattainable goal. Blair asked in an interview almost three years ago, “Why can’t we do the same (for mental health)?
And now it’s happening.
A $ 10 million facility is under construction on the Wellstone campus, equipped with 15 overnight beds and 16 inpatient beds for stays of up to a week. Similar facilities have been approved in Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile. All four facilities fit Blair’s vision for 2019, when funding seemed out of reach.
The issue of funding is still not fully resolved. Wellstone has raised $ 5 million through public and local funds, but is looking to stay $ 5 million through private donations.
Blair thanks Kim Boswell, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, along with his predecessor, Lynn Beshear, for turning his vision into reality, as well as Governor Kay Ivey and the state legislature.
“If none of those three pieces are in place, I can have vision all day – or anyone can,” said Blair. “But it’s not going anywhere.
“I think part of this is due to the right timing. We need those kinds of programs.
The stigma often attached to mental health issues has been undermined in recent months with celebrities and professional athletes giving voice to their own struggles. At the same time, Blair stressed that Ivey and the legislature continued to support treatment options.
“It’s about having the right people in Montgomery, in terms of commissioner in terms of governorship of lawmakers,” Blair said. “(House Majority Leader Nathaniel) Ledbetter really took charge of that as a mission arose and really pushed it and kept it going. It would have been very easy to fund three of them and then say, “Our job is done here. Let’s move on.’ Let’s move on to the next fire to be put out. And they didn’t. And I think it’s important.
“I think part of it is the pandemic. I think part of it is the stigma of mental health treatment that has diminished as athletes, celebrities, your neighbor. You will learn more about one in five people who will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime – one in five. There aren’t many other illnesses you can make that claim on. When we really understand that and say it’s something that someone on my street probably has to do, it’s something that I’m probably dealing with a family member, I might not know simply not. And the more we understand that, then I think the more compassionate we become. “