Joseph Parks is the director of the Missouri Institute of Mental Health. The institute is located in what used to be the St. Louis State Hospital, a city landmark on Arsenal Street known for its cast-iron dome. (Photo by August Jennewein)

It’s 8:30 a.m. and Joseph Parks has already fielded four conference calls, all of them while driving into St. Louis from his home in Columbia, Mo. Parks is the director of the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Once a week, he makes the trip to MIMH, which is housed on the grounds of the old St. Louis State Hospital.

“That’s my typical MIMH day,” says Parks, who joined the institute nearly two years ago. “I do business driving in. I do business on the way back home, and I’m in back-to-back meetings throughout the day.”

MIMH has 80 faculty and research staff. That team provides research, evaluation and training expertise to the Missouri Department of Mental Health and other state organizations seeking information related to mental health services and policy. The institute became a unit of UMSL in 2010 after being operated by the University of Missouri–Columbia for many years.

“Our St. Louis location created difficulties for the institute because of the distance from its parent institution in Columbia,” Parks says. “It was hard for the faculty to participate in university activities. It was even harder for them to feel connected to the teaching and the academic life of the university when it was a two-hour drive away.”

MIMH celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was established in 1962 as the research and teaching arm of the Missouri Division of Mental Diseases, now the Department of Mental Health. MIMH’s original mission was to respond to the critical shortage of mental health professionals in the state by attracting, training and retaining clinicians for public psychiatry in Missouri.

Initially, the institute did basic science research, taking a project from hypothesis testing in animals to clinical testing in humans. Over the years, MIMH has shifted its focus from basic research to applied science and implementation research.

Today, MIMH conducts research that improves services for the people served by the Department of Mental Health. MIMH also acts as a resource that helps behavioral health organizations and communities better evaluate and manage their programs, reduce their costs and train professionals to improve the lives and mental health of their clients and their residents.

“We do not provide clinical care,” says Parks. “We’re about helping people who do treatment, do better treatment.”

That means helping create more modern and effective treatment programs based on sound research principles. The bulk of what MIMH does is deploy programs – that have been shown to work through research – to clinical practices in the real world. For example, MIMH has provided suicide prevention training statewide for 10 years.

“We’ve trained over 10,000 people across Missouri,” Parks says. “Some of the suicide prevention programs are targeted for schools, while other programs are aimed at the general public.”

Question, Persuade, Refer is an MIMH program that’s designed for the public. People trained in QPR learn how to recognize the warning signs of a person contemplating suicide and how to question, persuade and refer them for help.

“We’re about bringing behavioral science to places that are not using that knowledge,” Parks says. “We do a little basic research, but it’s mostly helping people implement things.”

Another successful MIMH program is Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment. In settings where it’s been adopted – like emergency rooms and primary health clinics – patients undergo a quick screening to assess their alcohol and drug abuse. If they’re at risk for developing a serious problem, they receive a brief intervention that focuses on raising their awareness of substance abuse and motivating them to change their behavior. Patients who need more extensive treatment are referred to specialty care professionals.

The program has been in practice for five years and started with four primary care practices statewide. It’s now expanded to 29 practices statewide.

“Research shows that SBIRT provides as good a return on investment as a colonoscopy does, and it is more successful than breast screening in terms of reducing subsequent costs,” Parks says.

The programs at MIMH do not simply focus on treatment; they also work on preventing problems before they occur. Girls Holla Back does just that. The program aims to reduce substance abuse and new cases of HIV and AIDs among black females living in the St. Louis area. Girls Holla Back workshops are for girls ages 12 to 17 and one of their adult female family members. The most recent program session kicked off in March and had nearly 60 participants.

“It’s definitely a great tool,” says Beverly Morris, who signed up for the program with her 14-year old daughter Khayla Pruitt. “You feel like you’re at home, sitting on the couch talking to a sister or brother.”

They credit Girls Holla Back for the talks they now have about sexually transmitted diseases and the importance of Khayla practicing abstinence at her age.

Girls Holla Back program director LaToshia Boyd-Lee says while the program is fun, it has a serious message: Building strong relationships between girls and the women in their lives is essential so that “down the line [the girls] will be more comfortable in talking about their sexual health when they need to.”

The MIMH funds Girls Holla Back through a five-year, $1.5 million grant it received from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and it’s not the only fully funded MIMH program. In 2011, MIMH received over $10 million in federal and state grants.

Nasser Arshadi, vice provost for research at UMSL, oversees MIMH for the university. He says the institute is a highly successful operation that pays for most, if not all, of its own expenses through the grants it generates and taking on MIMH has not cost UMSL anything.

Arshadi says MIMH, and its partnership with UMSL, is something the university is “proud of,” and he looks forward to more in-depth collaboration down the road.

“They are integrated with our campus, but the relationship is still expanding and evolving,” he says.

And while the partnership is still developing, it’s already brought tangible benefits to the university. MIMH curates one of the oldest and largest collections of mental-health books west of the Mississippi River, and new internship and practicum opportunities have opened up to UMSL students.

“Health care is one of the major growth industries still doing well in this economy,” Parks says. “Behavioral health is a rapidly growing sector of the health-care field, so it’s a real career development opportunity for students.”

For Parks, UMSL and MIMH have an ideal partnership, because the organizations share a similar outlook and community focus.

“At UMSL,” he says, “it’s all about being connected to the community and helping the community, and that kind of research is MIMH’s bread and butter.”

This story was originally published in the spring 2012 issue of UMSL Magazine.

Myra Lopez

Myra Lopez