This October, WHI Communications Committee Co-Chair Maria Alfonso met with Mark Creekmore, treasurer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Washtenaw County (NAMI WC), to discuss his journey through juvenile corrections and the field of mental health, learning from past mistakes, and why he believes collaboration is essential for tackling our biggest challenges.
Q. What originally got you involved in the field of mental health?
Creekmore. My original interest was in child welfare and juvenile corrections. I got my first experience working in an institution called Berkshire Farm in Canaan, New York. While there, I was exposed to some big policy shifts. In 1967, the In re Gault decision from the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that you can’t institutionalize a juvenile without due process. Prior to that, there was no such thing as due process guarantees and representation by counsel for juvenile corrections.
I came to Michigan for graduate school and continued my [juvenile corrections] involvement. I was turned off by the institutional quality of services because at that time, there were almost no community-based treatments. I did my dissertation on the National Assessment of Juvenile Corrections, accounting the various correctional systems for juveniles. We discovered there were very few community programs.
So, I became very interested in community-based [treatment]. That was really my focus—because I really thought the institutional model was completely incapable of handling the complexity in the lives and issues these kids were facing.
In terms of my local involvement, it started with NAMI—training police officers for de-escalating crises. It was the very beginning of the crisis intervention training (CIT)—a relatively new movement in the early 2000s. And it focused my attention away from entirely professional focuses and into peer support specialists.
When I was on the board of NAMI Michigan, I obtained a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to be the outreach partner for the state. Through their conferences and materials, I was exposed to the full range of research on peer support. Several generations of research supported [the positive effects of] peers, to the extent that we could really do a lot more with them—work normally done by college-educated case managers.
That’s the kind of drift I went through—from institutional to community work, to focusing on peers and work that was complimentary to [traditional] professionals.
Q. What challenges or gaps are you dealing with in Washtenaw County?
Creekmore. Washtenaw County is a very resource rich place—large health systems that give us a privileged position, even relative to our neighboring counties. Gaps exist for marginalized communities—people with low incomes, racial minorities, and [those living in] vast rural areas.
People don’t [always] want to rely on our community mental health system in rural areas, because they’re a county agency. There can be tremendous suspicion. That’s also mirrored in some ethnic minority communities. I think that’s really the biggest gap—a generalized perception and lack of knowledge that most people have about these systems of care. They have no idea how to navigate them or what to expect from them.
Our systems of care have been largely siloed from each other. The problem is bridging those silos. For example, the rules followed by law enforcement and the justice system are completely different from the rules followed by the education system. So, that’s another gap—connecting these bridges across sectors.
And I think one of the recent interesting gaps, for example, in the education area, is the lack of understanding of public health issues by the public. The pandemic really showed how few people understand about how their lives are affected by more than individual decisions—and that their individual decisions have public consequences.
Q. What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Creekmore. Being involved in the mental health treatment court. But these things are always collaborative. It depends on finding the right group of people to move things along. So, I was involved with it, but I wouldn’t take credit for it. It went through several stages before it’s kind of stabilized now. I think a lot of it had to do with Judge Valvo who developed the court.
I think the thing that really drives me is trying to learn from my mistakes. So, in a strange way, I’m proudest of them.
For example, we trained 75 police officers in de-escalation—which was pretty successful. But it just didn’t sustain itself. Within about five years of that training, maybe 40 to 45 percent of the people we trained had retired. And that is a structural issue. Not understanding barriers to sustainability was a tremendous mistake.
That’s why what’s occurring now, with [jail] diversion processes, is much more sustainable. Like any educational process, it’s never done. There’s always a degradation in the learning curve. And there’s also turnover. You have to engage in these processes repeatedly. If you don’t have the structures to do that within these organizations, it’s eventually going to be gone. I don’t know if it’s an accomplishment, but a realization.
Q. Why did you join the Washtenaw Health Initiative and how has it been helpful?
Creekmore. I think the WHI is absolutely brilliant and should be here forever—because it brings all the players together in one place. With [singular] organizations, they are usually missing either the accountability or the knowledge base for them to do things by themselves. So that community infrastructure is invaluable.
For those who believe in collaboration, the WHI is where you go to find your fellow collaborators. It’s also a place where you can go with an idea and get some feedback on it.
Q. What inspires you to continue working for improved mental health in our community?
Creekmore. What really inspires me is the degree of commitment that other people have.
And the people who push the boundaries of organizations. You see that happening with Community Mental Health and the Sheriff’s Office—going beyond the typical approaches and limits and developing a fellowship with those you believe can accomplish things together.
The problems we’re dealing with don’t have easy solutions. A term for it is a wicked problem. And your proposed solution may uncover a series of [new] problems that you must address.
It’s a privilege being involved in a community which continues to work on these problems, because it’s hard to duplicate. It’s a bigger problem for communities which don’t have this same kind of fellowship—despite the sense that you’re dealing with really difficult problems which are not going away, you can make things better.