Wendy Bailey, formerly deputy director of administration for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, was named director of the agency last week. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The Mississippi Board of Mental Health, which oversees an embattled agency often accused of perpetuating a powerful dynasty, has hired a longtime agency spokesperson and strategist as its top chief. 

Former Mississippi Department of Mental Health Director Diana Mikula, who took the helm of the agency in 2014, announced her retirement last week. The same day, the board chose Wendy Bailey, the agency’s deputy director of administration and former communications director, to replace her. 

“I just feel like this is a missed opportunity,” Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, a registered nurse who sat on the state’s Mental Health Task Force, said in a Wednesday interview with Mississippi Today. “For the board of mental health to not put an interim until we could find somebody who is absolutely the correct person professionally, educationally and has actually touched and treated a mentally ill person. You know, I’m just in shock.”

Bailey will assume responsibility for ushering in reforms ordered by a federal judge within an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over Mississippi’s mental health care delivery system, which the judge said contained “major gaps.”

“Understanding that there’s always room for improvement and never settling for the status quo is what drives me,” Bailey told Mississippi Today Wednesday. “…I certainly hope that the people who want to see our state’s mental health system continue to get better and advance change and advance growth will judge me and evaluate me on my performance and my vision.”

The justice department primarily accused the state of serving folks with mental illness in environments that are more restrictive than necessary — locking people in state hospitals as opposed to providing community-based care.

“There is a lot of talk, there is a lot of planning, but there is also a lot of people being hurt in the process,” U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves wrote in his Sept. 4, 2019 order, quoting testimony from a person living with mental illness in Mississippi.

Under recent leadership, the department has diverted more money from the budgets of state institutions to community services.

Bailey, who received her bachelor’s in communication from Belhaven College in 2003 and her master’s degree in communication management from Webster University in 2010, has worked for the agency for nearly 16 years, first as its public relations director. She is also a licensed mental health administrator with the department. As an agency spokesperson, she has worked to craft public messaging for the department, create outreach campaigns and develop strategic plans. 

Regarding Bailey’s experience, Currie said, “I think this is appalling.”

In the last year in particular, a board statement said Bailey “has been intimately involved in the executive leadership,” of the agency that employs 5,700 and serves 110,000 people. The board credits her with playing a critical role in both the ongoing litigation and the agency’s fight against COVID-19.

“There is no one with more institutional knowledge plus executive experience than Wendy,” said Stewart Rutledge, an Oxford real estate developer and citizen representative on the mental health board. “In light of the fact that we are in the middle of two extraordinarily difficult situations, being the ongoing federal litigation and COVID, the need to have a smooth and stable transition is really important. But there’s no guarantee that we would have that. For that to happen, you have to have the right person and that person has to be willing to take the job. We were really lucky that that person existed.”

Rutledge said that securing a leader who was already familiar with the deeply complicated state agency in such a crucial moment trumped the benefits of advertising the position and conducting a national search.

“I would say the only reason they would make a move like this is they don’t want somebody else coming in to uncover where the bodies are buried,” Currie said. “…They always hire within at the Department of Mental Health because they don’t want somebody coming in and realizing how badly things are being done there.”

Bailey told Mississippi Today she is committed to bringing in outside experts to provide technical assistance to the agency, in particular to improve the state’s data tracking mechanisms so that it can pinpoint outcomes and identify exactly how well the services are working.

“That is not something I’m going to shy away from, from letting other people provide that assistance and that help as well. I think that’s how you grow stronger,” Bailey said.

The board’s statement says that Mikula began discussing her retirement over a year ago, saying she needed to dedicate more time with her family, but she agreed to continue with the agency through the federal trial.

“We, the Board, are aware that, prior to this statement, this hiring process could have appeared rushed or predetermined, but, in reality, this has been a very deliberate process which has taken over a year of our work,” the board wrote. “And, we are very happy that the end result has yielded such a strong candidate.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said he understands the potential concerns surrounding the hiring process, but, “I’d rather focus on the delivery of services and what we do going forward than on the deliberations of the committee and how they came to hire a new executive director.”

Rutledge cited two major challenges the agency faces today: navigating the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit to get the best outcomes for the state and finding ways to offer competitive salaries so it can hire and retain quality mental health professionals.

Within the maze of mental health services in the state, many advocates say the Department of Mental Health should be focused on expanding care in the community, but the agency doesn’t actually operate the primary vehicle for those public services, the Community Mental Health Centers.

“I think the Community Mental Health Centers will tell you they’re spending an awful lot of time just trying to keep their head above water, what with the continuing funding issues and with the coronavirus,” Bryan said.

Bailey said she plans to strengthen the department’s relationship with the centers, in part by offering them more state grant funding.

To understand the delivery of mental health services in Mississippi, longtime experts say, you must consider the succession of leaders at the state department. One of Mikula’s predecessors, Albert R. “Randy” Hendrix, headed the mental health agency for over thirty years and was in charge when Bailey first joined.

“All of those people that are in those positions, they were all Randy Hendrix hires and hold overs. And he controlled it with an iron hand,” said Jackie Edwards, retired director of Region 7 Community Mental Health Center. “After he left, none of them knew what to do.”

The new top level hire, Edwards said, shows “there’s just no change in the direction that they’re taking.”

Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press. Anna has received recognition for her work, including the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons, a first place 2020 Green Eyeshade Award for reporting on jobs, poverty and the Mississippi economy and the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.