A Talk with Andy Keller, PhD, the Institute’s New CEO

by Kanani Quijano, Director of Communications, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute

On January 1, 2016, the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute’s newly appointed President and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Andy Keller succeeded founding CEO Thomas W. Luce, who continues to serve on the Board of Directors. Dr. Keller is a psychologist with more than 20 years of experience in behavioral health policy and is a recognized leader in health and human services integration, behavioral health financing, and implementation of empirically supported practices for adults and children. In addition to helping plan and found the Institute, his most recent work has centered on helping local systems implement evidence-based and innovative care, as well as helping local and state governments develop the regulatory and financial framework to support them. Entering the second quarter of his leadership, Dr. Keller shares his thoughts on the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute’s direction and outlook.

Q: As the new CEO of the Institute, what are your top priorities for moving its mission forward?

One of my main priorities is continuity. We got off to a great start – Tom was an outstanding founding CEO and assembled a great team. We established credibility in Austin with legislative and agency decision makers, and we want to continue that. The work has been solid, the mission is right on, and the direction we’re headed has a lot of traction.

My second priority for this year is Speaker Straus’s Select Committee on Mental Health. He assembled a prestigious committee and named Representative Four Price as chair. Being able to use our resources to be sure the committee has the best information available is a big priority for us. In addition, because of its broad charge and ambitious agenda, I believe that we’ll be informed by the work of the Select Committee. I’m excited about that.

Third is thoughtful growth. Our mission is not just to respond to immediate legislative opportunities. It’s also to create an Institute that is an enduring resource for the state of Texas. That means continuing to build the organization in a thoughtful way so that it is still around in 50 years doing good work for the people of Texas.

Q: How do you envision the work of the Institute will grow or evolve over the next few years?

We want to be statewide, not just Austin focused. Policy changes in the Capitol won’t really matter if the parent of a child with depression can’t get help through their pediatrician or other provider. So we really have to help local systems develop so every Texan can get the help they need. Our biggest area of growth will be to engage more communities at the local level, though the Institute only goes into places where we are invited and where people feel we can contribute. We’re working with about a dozen communities now. The goal is to grow that by five or 10 new communities a year, be it a single county or a region, to support the development of their local systems.

Children and families are our other major area of growth. We got off quickly with work on veterans and criminal justice, but 50 percent of mental illness manifests before age 14. We need to have the effective care and support that children need to grow and thrive.

Q: The Institute recently launched Okay to Say, a movement to talk openly about mental illness. Why is it important, and how can it help change the Texas mental health landscape?

Two-thirds of people with mental illness do not seek care, too often because they do not ask for help. Complex illnesses of any type require bold conversations and growing awareness to help people get the help that they need. Public awareness is also key to getting researchers, medical institutions, and funders to respond and invest in more research and services. That’s been key to advances in other diseases such as cancer and AIDS. We have to help people believe that it worth it to quit being silent and speak up about mental illness to get the help that they and their families deserve.

Okay to Say™ is a community-based movement initiated by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. The objective is to eliminate the misconceptions and stereotypes that stand in the way of people getting the care they need by increasing public awareness about mental health, and by inspiring people to talk openly about their challenges and successes in seeking treatment and getting better. The okaytosay.org website is available to people in communities across Texas, and we are actively engaging partners to join the movement and say it’s okay to talk about mental illness just like any other disease.

Q: What has it been like to move with your family to Texas? It’s been almost two years, right?

We have been living in Dallas now for almost two years, though I’ve been working in Texas for 15 years. My family and I love being in Texas. The people here are pretty special and the opportunities amazing. Coming from Michigan was a big move for my family, and we’re very appreciative of how welcoming people have been. Texas is a wonderful state to live and work in.

Q: When it’s your turn to pass on the leadership of the Institute, what do you hope will be its legacy under your tenure?

I hope to see that the work of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute has helped Texas become known for having the best places anywhere for the treatment of mental illness, just the same way people think of MD Anderson as the place to go to nationally for cancer treatment. I hope that someday any parent with a concern about their child’s health and well-being would know exactly where to go for help in any community across the state and not feel worried about asking. And I would want them to be able to talk about their concerns with their friends and neighbors, and maybe even have folks at church make dinner for a few nights when the treatment is going through a rough patch, just like folks would for any other child fighting a dangerous illness.