Every two weeks Tracy Plouck anonymously answers calls at a crisis center near her home. It’s something she has done since 2006.
“I started answering phones there because I wanted to volunteer,” said Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (OhioMHAS). “Now, it provides me with firsthand insight into where we have gaps in our system.”
Plouck said a recent call was typical of the ones that she fields.
“The caller told me that he had just been released from prison and didn’t have anywhere to sleep, and that he didn’t have family or a plan now that he was out,” she said. “I steered him toward services that could help him because all of those things are going to put him at risk of recidivism.”
Plouck has a 20-year career working in Ohio state government, including stints as the state’s Medicaid director and as deputy director of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management.
One of her first projects in her current position was helping rural jails in some of Ohio’s 88 counties add more capacity for people with mental illnesses.
“A group of sheriffs from the northwest part of the state asked for a meeting and told me that one of their biggest challenges was a lack of housing for all of the individuals with mental health issues coming through their jails,” she said.
Plouck witnessed the need firsthand as she toured the jails in that area.
Not long before, Ohio’s mental health and addiction services departments were consolidated under Plouck’s supervision. She took $1.5 million in savings from that effort and redirected those funds toward jails to help with the issue.
“It wasn’t enough, but it was enough to plug some of the holes that we were seeing,” she said.
At the end of 2014, OhioMHAS announced a second round of funding to help link nonviolent offenders with community-based behavioral health care.
Another project initiated by Plouck ensures that people who have mental illnesses and are released from prison are signed up for Medicare, to ensure better access to medication and treatment. She is also working on a $3 million proposal that would go to rural jails to make sure that people with mental illnesses receive the medicine and treatment they need while still incarcerated.
There are six regional psychiatric hospitals run by the state, Plouck said. A study of one—Appalachian Behavioral Healthcare in Athens—revealed that 10 percent of all admissions are people coming from jails.
“We started asking why this was,” she said, “and found that there are virtually no services in the jails if a person starts going into crisis.”
The biggest challenge, Plouck said, is that “one size doesn’t fit all” for such a varied state. The median income varies $60,000 from the richest to poorest communities, she said, and the best way to be responsive is to have individual plans for each area—but that also makes oversight difficult.
Plouck said the biggest lesson she has learned in her position is that mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
“There are people from affluent families and poor families who are impacted,” she said. “I’ve been struck by the number of people who contacted me privately and said, ‘My son or daughter has a problem.’ This illness transcends boundaries.”