Guilford County is implementing an entire new mental health delivery system and it looks now like the county will also create and fill a new position with a person who’ll essentially be the new mental health tsar.

Guilford County has been working with Cone Health and Sandhills Center Inc, a mental health care administrative entity, to develop a state-of-the-art mental health care system that officials hope will be a model for the rest of North Carolina. This week, the newest aspect of that plan became known.  The stakeholders are likely to create a position – a director-level county position that would be filled with a point person who would be in charge of all mental health and behavioral health operations in the county.

About seven years ago, major changes in the way mental health care services were administered across North Carolina led to the dissolution of the Guilford Center – essentially the county’s “Department of Mental Health” – and ever since then Guilford County has not had anyone to point to as the one person ultimately responsible for overseeing mental health care.  However, citizens can now look for that to change as Guilford County, Cone Health and Sandhills Center enter into the new era.

This week, Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips, who played a major role in putting the mega mental health deal together, said the participating parties feel as though there needs to be a point person to oversee the entire operation.

“We are in preliminary discussions around the possibility of hiring a person to oversee behavioral health services,” Phillips said.

Phillips added that the plan is for the new structure of mental health services to be based somewhat on a model of the Guilford County Family Justice Center – a relatively new county department formed several years ago to combat domestic violence and address other family-oriented problems.

“It’s been something that we’ve thought about since the outset,” Phillips said of hiring a director.

Guilford County Family Justice Center Director Catherine Johnson has been successful leading that effort to reduce domestic violence and to take a proactive stance in helping clients.  In the case of the Family Justice Center, Johnson was hired well before the center opened so that she could oversee the program’s development and implementation, and Phillips said he and others believe that, when it comes to the new mental health model now being put in place in Guilford County, it makes sense to hire a leader early in the process as well.

He said the new director may need a clinical background but must also be able to work well with county leadership and key stakeholders.

“It’s got to be someone who is very well rounded – like a Catherine Johnson,” Phillips said.

Phillips added that there now seems to be a consensus from Cone Health and others involved, who all see a need for the position.

“This would be something that would happen not after, but before, the doors open,” he said, adding that they hiring of a director might take place before the end of the year.