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In 40-Plus Years, Places For People CEO Saw Huge Changes In Mental Health Care

Jay Fram
Joe Yancey says most behavioral health disorders are the result of unidentified trauma. To treat mental illness at the source, he says, collective community trauma must be addressed first.

When Joe Yancey began working for the St. Louis nonprofit Places for People in 1978, behavioral health providers were still helping people move out of state-run psychiatric facilities, the default option for treating people with serious mental illness.

“We were pretty much on the tail end of what has been called deinstitutionalization, where states across the country were releasing people from these large institutions,” Yancey said.

In the decades after institutions were shuttered, evidence-based treatment models and the introduction of new medications continued to transform best practices for mental health care. And people suffering from mental illness began to seize control of their own treatment. Yancey referred to this shift in thinking as “the Consumer Movement.”

“People that had dealt with their mental illness for years started to basically rise up and say, ‘Wait a minute — nothing about us without us,'” he said. “We want a life just like anybody else that has any other type of chronic illness.’”

The movement proved a game-changer for a system that previously saw mental illness as a barrier to building a life and having relationships and a career, Yancey said.

During his more than 40 years in the field, Yancey worked to help those with mental illness receive the treatment and support they need. He retired last month as Places for People’s CEO.

He reflected on his time with the organization on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, emphasizing that while we’ve come a long way from the days of institutionalization, society needs to better prioritize mental health treatment.

“We are still in a very novice stage in regard to behavioral health, which includes mental health disorders as well as substance abuse disorders,” he said. “Behavioral health [and] mental health care has always been subservient to physical health care, both in terms of resources, in terms of parity around insurance, in terms of access, in terms of so many things. And part of our fight is … to bring behavioral health up to that same level. Frankly, I believe it is more important.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.