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St. Louis health department creates new bureau to address addiction, mental health

St. Louis Health Director Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis addresses reporters during the announcement of the St. Louis Behavioral Health Bureau Oct. 12.
Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, St. Louis health director, on Wednesday announced the new St. Louis Behavioral Health Bureau.

The St. Louis Department of Health will soon hire more than a dozen workers to staff a new agency designed to address the city’s growing mental health needs.

The Behavioral Health Bureau will help improve awareness of and access to mental health and drug addiction treatment, said Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, the city's health director.

“Today we begin transitioning from talking about mental health and substance abuse concerns to making a major equitable, data-driven approach to addressing those concerns,” she said.

The bureau will focus on many mental health needs, but in its first year it will dedicate most of its energy to treating drug addiction and preventing overdoses, which killed nearly 450 people in the city last year.

The city has the highest rate of mental health-related emergency department visits in the state, said the health director. Many of those visits are drug-related.

The bureau is long overdue, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said. The health department previously did not have any employees singularly dedicated to working on the city’s behavioral health needs.

“At every town hall I’ve been to this year, community members emphasize the need for better awareness of and access to mental health care,” Jones said. “Residents across our city see firsthand the human cost of failing to invest in behavioral health.”

Jones said the city would boost the health department's budget to pay for the new bureau.

“Addiction, lack of access to mental health care, these are some of the root causes of crime,” Jones said. “It’s a commitment to treat mental health as a critical component of well-being.”

No permanent employees have been hired yet, she said, but a seven-person group of scientists, data experts and epidemiologists from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have signed on for a 10-month stint to identify trends related to substance abuse and lack of treatment options.

The CDC assembled the team for the St. Louis Health Department after CDC's director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, visited the city’s health department earlier this year. Hlatshwayo Davis asked the agency for help.

“When I told her I didn’t have one person that was employed here to do the work for that, she was stunned,” Hlatshwayo Davis said. “I mean, floored!”

The seven-person team will work on collecting data while city health officials interview and hire 14 permanent staff members for the bureau, including nurses, epidemiologists and data specialists. Then, the department will start work based on the information the CDC team collected.

“If I know where the deficits are, if I know where the disproportionate deaths are, that’s where we want to drive action both internally and through our partners,” Hlatshwayo Davis said.

The director was vague about how the department will address those needs, but she said the bureau hopes in the next six months to create a map of where addiction and substance use prevention services are needed in the city, create a plan to address the overdose crisis and create a dashboard that will track opioid overdose metrics.

 Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.