Department of Behavioral Health will combine mental health, substance abuse functions

City officials say the new arrangement makes more sense than keeping mental health care separate from substance abuse. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post) City officials say the new arrangement makes more sense than keeping mental health care separate from substance abuse. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

A new Department of Behavioral Health will become one of the District government’s largest agencies after Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced Friday that he was combining the city’s mental health and substance abuse functions for the first time.

The new department, to begin operations Oct. 1, will combine the Department of Mental Health, with its $190 million budget and 1,200 employees, with the Department of Health’s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration, which has a $32 million budget and about 90 employees. Those agencies currently manage services for about 35,000 District residents.

The current mental health director, Steve Baron, will manage the new department, Gray said.

The mayor and health advocates hailed the reorganization as an opportunity to provide more comprehensive care for conditions that are often interrelated. They pointed to research showing that treating both substance abuse and mental health issues together improves ultimate outcomes.

Richard R. Bebout, a psychologist who is chief clinical officer for Community Connections, one of the city’s largest mental health providers, said the two types of disorders “most often interact in complex, reciprocal ways.”

The reshuffle, he added, is “in line with what is happening across the country in other progressive jurisdictions.”

Gray also said the combination could be good for the city’s bottom line — creating management efficiencies but also making it easier to attract research grants and secure federal Medicaid reimbursements.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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