From the Editor: ‘I Need to Do This’

A conversation with Stacey Cook

BY November 26, 2018

Maybe it all started for Stacey Cook at 17, when she began driving her mother to and from work so she could have the car for the day. Innocent enough, right? Her mom, who herself had suffered from mental illness and substance abuse problems, was a nurse at Ruth Cooper Center  treating those very issues.

And on those drives, her mom told her stories of working with patients on their recovery journeys. “Mom invited me to volunteer there,” Stacey says, “and I was a bit apprehensive about it. But I signed on and liked it and then took a job there.”

And so the mission began for the very serious and committed Stacey. She embraced jobs there as behavioral health care technician, then case manager, therapist, manager of programs, and assistant vice president overseeing patient and community services. Along the way, of course, she got a master’s degree in social work from Florida Gulf Coast University and was licensed as a clinical social worker. By then, the Ruth Cooper Center had become the Lee Mental Health Center, which later merged with Southwest Florida Addiction Services in 2013 to become the SalusCare of today.

Then, in 2016, SalusCare faced a transition crisis and it turned to Stacey to see if she would be interim CEO. “I was shocked,” Stacey says. “I had never thought of putting myself forward in this challenging time.” She thought about the offer, then said to herself, “I need to do this.” The path had been set and it was ever onward. “Interim” was soon dropped and she was full-out CEO.

You know Stacey would not just rest easy in the job, and, in a recent chat with her, I asked about some of the moves forward. The first was in response to a $500,000 budget cut in state funds last year, including $300,000 from the inpatient drug abuse program.

“We would have had to close our women’s halfway house,” Stacey says, “which involved 15 to 17 women in a living and learning program.” She put together a think tank, and they came up with a plan to become a certified recovery residence. Patients would have to pay $125 a week, and it took a lot of bureaucratic tussle to get the certification for what’s now functioning as apartments with two patients per room and a common area as well. “We’re trying to create a family environment,” Stacey says. Various community services help with the funding. Stacey proudly talks of one of the certified recovery peer specialists working there. Both his parents had been addicts, and he, too, became an addict and lived in the recovery residence himself. “Now,” Stacey says, “he’s working to help others as thanks for those who started him on his recovery.”

In yet another initiative, SalusCare created a team across many disciplines for intensive treatment of the highest-need, highest-
utilizing people—the ones who relapse and keep coming back for help. “We’re 8 months into this approach,” Stacey says, “and are already seeing a reduction in the recidivist rate.”

She cites the case of a young mother with a mental disorder and substance abuse problems who had been admitted to SalusCare four times in five months. She didn’t have stable housing, was unemployed and had difficulty paying for essential behavioral health medications. The intensive treatment team swung into action, getting her into a recovery program and getting her assistance in paying for her medications and bus passes to help her get out and find a job. She’s now self-sufficient, employed and in a treatment plan that seems to be working.

Significantly, SalusCare just earned a 3-year accreditation from CARF International (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitative Facilities) required for funding from state, county and insurance companies. Stacey reports, “It’s a four-day survey of 1,600 performance standards, and the 3-year accreditation is the best we ever had.”

Moving ahead, Stacey says she’s most passionate about removing the stigma of mental disorders and substance abuse. “If you have high blood pressure or diabetes,” she says, “there’s no pressure getting funding to help you out. We need to normalize funding for behavioral health problems. We chastise people for relapsing but say nothing about those who have diabetes and have difficulty stabilizing their blood sugar.”

So what does this serious woman do for fun? “I’m an avid runner, trying to get out every day, disconnecting from everything and being outdoors. I watch leadership videos. And I’m reading Frogs into Princes, a book about neuro-linguistic programming. It’s about altering the way we learn, finding new pathways to behave and feel differently.” Why do I think her SalusCare patients are in the best of hands? With Stacey, even at rest, there’s always the mission.


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