Executive Spotlight: Christine Macbeth, president, CEO of The Brien Center

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PITTSFIELD — Christine Macbeth likes to place these three words on her computer's screen saver: "Keep hope alive."

Those words are especially meaningful in social work, which Macbeth is licensed to do. They also relate to Macbeth's current position as president and chief executive officer of The Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The Pittsfield-based agency, marking its 100th anniversary this year, is playing a leading role in combating the opioid crisis in Berkshire County.

We spoke with Macbeth recently about her love for her profession, her views on recovery and the opioid problem in the Berkshires, and why one of the county's largest employers is struggling to find qualified clinicians.

Q: What attracted you to social work?

A: If my father were still alive, he would say that I'm a do-gooder. But, honestly, I've always had a desire to kind of support and have an impact on the most vulnerable populations. It really has to do with the values my parents instilled in me. I credit them for that. They were people that cared about what was going on in the world, took an interest in it and volunteered.

Q: How did you end up working for the Brien Center?

A: I was on the board of Berkshire Children & Families. Carolyn Burns [the agency's former director] asked me to go represent them at the Women in Business Luncheon at Berkshire Hills. Typical me, I get to places right at the minute the events are scheduled to start. All the tables were filled, but I found a table that was all filled by women from the Brien Center. I met Katie Doherty, my predecessor there. A few months later, I came on board at the Brien Center as assistant executive director. ... It was meant to be.

Q: You co-wrote an op-ed in The Eagle several years ago that stated "recovery is not linear." What does that mean?

A: You don't start at A and end up at Z, so to speak. What happens in the person's life, their whole life, is going to impact, I believe, the success of their recovery. It's the treatment service that they're involved in; it's the support from families; the support from friends; the support from their community; the support from the place of employment; it may be their faith.

Whatever is important in their life is going to help them and support them and have an impact.

Q: So, you see recovery from addiction as a holistic process?

A: Yes, and I believe that mental illness and addiction are lifelong diseases, like somebody who lives with diabetes, or heart disease or cancer, for that matter. You have to figure out how to live with it in such a way that it's going to work for you.

The other thing that is really important in the work that I do, and the other thing that I believe in so strongly, is I firmly believe that prevention works, that treatment is effective and that people can and do recover. ... My point is, they're diseases, but they're absolutely treatable diseases.

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Q: Based on your observations, how bad is the opioid problem in the Berkshires?

A: Honestly, right now, and this is a rough estimate, those we're treating with addiction probably easily still identify alcohol as the primary substance that they're abusing. However, that said, if I take a look at the population that we're treating, at least half will say that they've used opioids or heroin in the past year.

Q: That's not good.

A: I think, unfortunately, that Berkshire County has been identified as a hot spot — the opioid epidemic is front and present in a significant way [as viewed] by the Department of Public Health. In the most recent statistics that I looked at that the Department of Public Health puts out [from 2016 to 2018], opioid deaths are decreasing in almost every other area of the state, but not in Berkshire County. They are increasing.

Q: Why is that?

A: I think it's because of the vulnerableness of the population. We have a very mature elderly population, many of whom, from an historic perspective, have been treated with opioids in the treatment of their physical illness. I think that's a piece of it.

Another big piece of it, from a lot of the folks that we're treating anyway, is that people are homeless; they don't have jobs; they're disconnected from their families. I think it's that overwhelming sense of absolutely no control and helplessness and hopelessness that leads to that.

Q: But, other areas of the state and the country are also dealing with homeless, joblessness and people who are disconnected. Are you saying those things are worse here?

A: If you take a look at Berkshire County, there are certainly people of means. But, there's still a large part of the population that doesn't have those resources. No jobs, homelessness, [even] transportation is a huge issue in Berkshire County.

Q: Do you see the Brien Center expanding its services or staying on its current path?

A: I think we will be very strategic about how we expand. ... One of my biggest challenges is the demand for clinicians. The demand for mental health and addiction services is rising in Berkshire County, and the bottom line is, there are just not enough practitioners at all levels to meet that need.

That's not just in Berkshire County; it's in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. ... The other thing that I know is impacting our work that we do every day is the chronic under-funding that really threatens how we provide services and deliver care.

Q: Is that beginning to change?

A: On a real positive note, [state Secretary of Health and Human Services] Marylou Sudders is really taking a look at ambulatory behavior health care or outpatient services and what changes need to occur from a state standpoint to increase access and make sure that people get the services they need immediately. ... We provide outpatient services for individual family work and group work at a reimbursement rate that hasn't changed in 10 years.


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