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Cooling Off

The new director of the city's top mental health agency takes the reins after a rocky year.

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Just two months into the job, Wilson Washington, the new chief executive of the city's public mental health agency, is setting the bar high for changes after a tumultuous year rocked by scandals.
Richmond's Behavioral Health Authority was roiled in July 2007 when its board suspended director Steven J. Ashby. The change was prompted by a city audit that resulted in the personnel director, Michael T. Parker, pleading guilty to embezzling $75,000 from the agency a month later. Then in late October, a man who had been receiving treatment from the authority stabbed a 70-year-old woman on West Broad Street near the Department of Motor Vehicles.


Those challenges unfolded in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007, an incident that had thrust the state's mental health system into the spotlight.
Washington, a retired naval officer, says the drama won't undercut an ambitious program he's set for the year. He plans to hire a chief medical officer, digitize office records and, perhaps most significantly, add a crisis-stabilization unit.


The 16-bed center would be a place where someone in the midst of a disease or drug-induced crisis could cool off without getting committed against their will to a psychiatric hospital or prison. The need for more of these facilities was discussed frequently during the state's mental health reform efforts this past year.


“This is not a ‘nice to have,’” says Maryanne Bergeron, head of the statewide organization that represents local mental health boards. “In many if not most cases people can be stabilized in a crisis intervention setting and avoid that involuntary commitment process.”


Washington has his eye on the Richmond Police Department's 4th Precinct building across the street from the downtown agency, which police are hoping to leave for a Chamberlayne Avenue address by the end of this year.


While the new unit would be a welcome addition to the city's strained mental health system, Washington will have his work cut out for him. Despite promises for increased state spending, a stormy economy threatens to wash away the new money, a challenge Washington is prepared to face.


Before arriving in Richmond, he was head of the mental health division of Community Health of South Florida. It was $800,000 in debt when he arrived in 2004. He left it approaching $600,000 in the black when he moved to Richmond.


“I like a challenge,” he says. S

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