By Katelyn Howard
When children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, popular responses include a firefighter, an astronaut, a veterinarian or a cowboy.
As a child, Cathy Billings had her heart set on a different career: social work.
Billings was determined to follow the footsteps of her aunt Betty Williams, who was a social worker.
“She was the only real adult in my life that talked about her work with such passion and excitement,” Billings said.
Even though she knew nothing about the field, her reasoning was simple: to have a good time, to help people and to not work on holidays. Her motivation for entering social work changed over the years, but her goal remained the same.
This led to Billings becoming the executive director of the Central Oklahoma Community Mental Health Center in Norman in June 2015. The center provides mental health and substance abuse services to children, youth, adults and families. Billings said the center employees about 110 staff members and serves about 3,500 outpatients a year from Cleveland and McClain counties as well as others from across the state.
In 1968, the center was the first facility of its kind built in the United States, according to the center’s website. Federal and state funds were used to build and staff the center under the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which was passed during the administration of President John F. Kennedy. The center was first located on the campus of Griffin Memorial Hospital, which was then called Central State Hospital, in Norman and moved in 1969 to its current location on Alameda Street.
During this time, Dr. Hayden Donahue, superintendent of the hospital, proposed a grant to the National Institute of Mental Health, which led to the center being built, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ website. This center was different since institutionalization in large state hospitals had been the main way to treat mental illness until the mid-1960s. About 6,400 Oklahomans were in the state’s mental hospitals on a normal day.
After almost 50 years, Oklahoma is still facing similar problems related to mental health and substance abuse.
About 600,000 Oklahomans have reported mental illness and about 300,000 have reported alcohol or illicit drug dependence and abuse, according to a document from the department. Out of these people, only one in three have accessed the medical services needed to treat these diseases.
According to a report from the Oklahoma Policy Institute, the department will receive a state appropriation of about $337.1 million for fiscal year 2019, which is about $11.3 million more than fiscal year 2018. This is a 60.9 percent increase from fiscal year 2009.
“People with mental illness and substance abuse problems die way too early,” Cindy Schultz, clinical director of the center, said while holding back tears. “The deaths of people that we serve is really tough because I really feel like we invest in those people
Billings said the center now has nine buildings total. These house programs like Child and Family Services, which provides services for children and adolescents with behavioral problems, and PACT, Program Assertive Community Treatment, which brings treatment to people who are too ill for office based services.
Even though the main campus building on Alameda Street is old, she said people should not be deceived by its outward appearance.
“Magic happens in these walls,” Billings said. “People come here and receive services, go into recovery and rebuild their lives and their relationships and it’s just pretty cool.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Billings was eager to return to Oklahoma since she had attended the University of Oklahoma and her mother was from the state. After living in D.C. for years, she moved to Oklahoma in 2015 to become an executive director of mental health.
Billings was drawn to this work after witnessing her family members and close friends suffer from behavioral health and substance abuse issues. She noticed the stigma and moral judgments that surrounded these problems.
Her perspective on these issues was changed when she started to view it as a disease of the brain.
“If you’re going to take care of somebody and you’re trying to treat the whole person, you can’t just treat the body,” Billings said. “You have to treat the mind.”
No one day at work is the same for Billings since she takes on numerous roles. There are days where she has an agenda to work on budgets and strategic planning, but then her day is derailed from having to handle a broken air conditioner or a leak in the boiler room. On other days, Billings might have to help come up with a plan for someone with complex problems.
Before Billings came to the center, Schultz said there were communication issues between staff members since they were spread out across different buildings and did not know each other very well.
Billings’ solution was to create treatment teams comprised of social workers, therapists, peers, recovery staff, doctors and nurses, which allowed better coordination and communication. If one provider is ill or gone, the whole team is aware and can quickly find someone else to help during a crisis.
“She was a lot like a breath of fresh air,” Schultz said. “We needed some new ideas and some new tracks to follow.”
Another goal for Billings included doing cosmetic updates to the building so the “outside can reflect how the staff feels on the inside.”
Schultz said Billings made people step out of their normal box of how they did their job and that she has shown commitment to the employees and the consumers. If anyone has a question, Schultz said Billings will invite the person to her office to talk, and she is not afraid to take client calls, even if it is a crisis.
“There is no them and us,” Billings said. “Titles don’t really matter.”
To this day, her aunt Williams is still her idol and mentor. They see each other often since Williams lives in Edmond.
As the younger sister of Billings’ mom, serving others was a daily occurrence for Williams and her seven other siblings while growing up in Marietta, Georgia. Even though her family was poor, her mother would regularly feed the homeless on the back porch of their home.
“My mother always said that the only person who doesn’t have anything is someone who does not give and share so if you give and share, you will always have things,” Williams said.
With her mothers giving spirit being a large influence in her life, she decided to become a social worker since people of all ages would often confide in her.
When Billings was a child, this servants heart was passed on to her. She would always get excited after hearing Williams enthusiastically talk about her job.
When Billings decided to enter the field of social work, Williams knew she could make more money in a different career. Nonetheless, Williams was thrilled that Billings saw something in her that made her want to contribute to others.
Williams said she has been proud of how Billings inspires her workers and can turn a program around that is having trouble.
“I now see why my aunt talked about her work the way she did,” Billings said. “You come to work and it’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s spiritual, it’s intellectual. You get to use all parts of who you are to do this work.”