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Following Chairwoman's Death, New Leader Sought for Mental Health Task Force

by on December 11, 2019 10:55 AM

Centre County Board of Commissioners Chair Michael Pipe said he was at "a loss for words" over the recent death of Billie Willits, a longtime State College resident, Penn State administrator and chairwoman of the recently formed Task Force on Mental Health Crisis Services.

According to an obituary published on Wednesday, Willits, 73, died on Nov. 20 after a long battle with cancer.

In September, Willits was named chair of the mental health task force formed by State College and Centre County in the wake of the police shooting death of Osaze Osagie, a 29-year-old borough resident who was diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia, and the subsequent community discussions about mental health crisis services in the county.

Willits chaired a group of 35 people tasked with examining "the continuum of mental health crisis services" in the county.

"We need to be reflective on that because of the work she put it into it," Pipe said. "She invested countless hours, days, weeks, from being named as chair until her passing — getting involved in this, learning the players, learning the issues, wanting a way forward that was pragmatic and there could be action items done."

A native of Iowa, Willits held positions at several universities before coming to Penn State in 1989. She was associate vice president of human resources and a faculty member for multiple academic programs. She served as board chair for Skills of Central Pennsylvania and the Skills Foundation, president of American Association of University Women State College, and a committee member for Centre Volunteers in Medicine. She was also head coach of the Lady Icers club hockey team for two seasons.

Pipe said that following Willits' death, the three-month-old task force is now in search of a new chair.

"With her loss there’s been a need to reset and find another chair, which is going to be important for that group," Pipe said. "The strategy has always been to get everybody around the table, identify the things that are working and things that are not working and being very honest about them."

County Administrator Margaret Gray said the process is underway to identify a new chair. She added that the task force hopes to complete its first phase of work involving mapping of existing resources over the next month.

"We’re hoping to have the mapping piece finished by mid-January so that a more in-depth conversation can begin at that point about what’s working, what’s not working, what can be improved, what will be the recommendations that will come back to the Board of Commissioners and the State College Borough Council," Gray said.

Several community members spoke during public comment at the start of Tuesday's commissioners meeting to express concerns about Universal Community Behavioral Health's recent decision to close its Bellefonte outpatient clinic and end its crisis intervention service, Can Help, in February.

"We have insufficient funds. We have insufficient facilities. And we have insufficient activism and plan in place to handle our mental health crisis that we’re in," said Leslie Liang, a Ferguson Township resident and at-large community member on the task force.

Natalie Corman, director of the county's mental Health/intellectual disabilities offices, later explained the plan now in place to continue services provided by UCBH. Mobile and phone crisis intervention services will be handled by Center for Community Resources, which also operates the new walk-in crisis assessment center at 2100 E. College Ave. in College Township.

Service and Access Management, Inc., will be responsible for mental health delegate services in which a licensed counselor works with police and medical professionals through the "302" involuntary commitment process.

While the county tries to find a new provider for the services provided by the outpatient clinic, county and managed care staff are working to ensure continuity of services and medication management for the clinics' clients continues after the Feb. 1 closure.

Gray said the new services will be incorporated into the mapping being done by the task force.

"The Task Force was jointly established by Centre County and the Borough of State College to recommend enhancements to, and identify strengths of, the mental health crisis delivery system in Centre County," a borough news release in October said. 

"The Task Force will continue its work, providing periodic updates to the community and ultimately issuing a report in Spring, 2020 to the State College Borough Council and the Centre County Commissioners. Task Force members are dedicated to the mission of identifying the current state of the system, noting strengths and recommending enhancements to the mental health crisis delivery system countywide."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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