5 Questions with Maureen Bauman

Published on April 28, 2017

Many people living with mental illness know the signs of stigma too well: shame, social isolation, silent stares, insensitive language. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an opportunity to spread awareness, stand up to stigma and engage in open, thoughtful conversations around mental health.

Maureen Bauman, director of Placer County’s Adult System of Care, has dedicated her career to serving Placer County residents with mental illness — about one in five adults in any given year. On May 4, Bauman will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sacramento chapter of the American Society for Public Administration, in recognition of her decades of outstanding public service. She answers five questions about her work.

What started you on your career path originally?

I knew I wanted to be a social worker kind of early. I was always interested in helping people, and started volunteering with young people while I was a freshman in college. While I was in school and getting a sociology degree, I just thought, “This is not going to lead me anywhere.” Then I discovered social work. It seemed it would provide me the variety I was looking for. I went to San Jose State and got my bachelor's in social work, and then later I went to Sac State and got my Master of Social Work and a degree in public administration. I knew I wanted to be an administrator. I did clinical work and got my license, and then became an executive director of a nonprofit in Placer, Sierra Family Services, before coming to the county.

I’ve had a lot of variety in my jobs in Placer, being involved with mental health, substance use services, in-home support services, adult protective services, the public guardian and medical clinics.

How has the mental health profession changed over the years?

Lots of ways! Our building was the old DeWitt State Hospital, so if you really want to talk about where we came from, we are in a place that was an asylum because back then we had very few options for people.

Medication was a huge advancement that really helped people to move into lower levels of care. When I came to mental health, I met people who had moved back to Placer County after having spent significant time in the state hospital, and came back to the community to be successful. We were beginning to believe that people could achieve recovery and live in the community with mental illness.

There are some other key things for me. Today, we have lots of clients who move down the road to recovery. Some become volunteers and staff. Having clients as a part of our treatment teams has led to improved services. That’s a piece that I was able to witness here in Placer County, and it was a big cultural change. In drug and alcohol programs, there has always been a lot of peer support. But somehow on the mental health side, it took longer to accept this important aspect of the service. It’s a different level of relationship, so it's been an interesting transition. It's really enriched our system in many ways, and it's an example of one of the big changes that we’ve had.

Also, with the Mental Health Services Act of 2004, all the systems in California are working to become more recovery oriented. They used to be oriented around what was a billable service. We didn't all believe in recovery. It took time to really embrace the concept that people in mental health services have a lot of choices, and they do better in recovery when they feel more empowered. We've learned over the years that you don't have to medicate all of somebody's symptoms away. You have to actually partner with people to figure out what strategies you’re going to use to help them cope. Medicine is one, but it’s not the be-all-end-all, and people can learn other ways to manage symptoms. You have to actually partner with an individual to make that work.

What have been the most memorable moments of your career?

One of the things that's very memorable to me was talking to a group of clients in a program we called day treatment. It was a program people came to every day for classes and activities. It provided structure, but we discovered it didn't really help people move successfully into the community.

I was talking to a big group of people in the day treatment program, and I asked this group of people — all clients getting mental health services — if they ever experienced discrimination.

And the room — it was just an amazing sensation. They had all experienced discrimination, feeling like they were different out there in the world. They all had stories. It was very, very sobering to experience that, and to realize what a lot of work we had to do. These great human beings are treated very differently because they don't quite fit in, or they act a little weird, or they sometimes have symptoms from medication or other challenges.

That was something I held onto. I've been involved with statewide prevention and stigma reduction efforts, and I just feel like it's still work that we have to do to help. When people feel like there's something wrong if you're mentally ill, people aren’t going to get help. The situation is compounded because we don’t talk about it. A lot of the adults we treat have had symptoms for 10 years! If it were something else, like you broke your arm, you’d never think “I’m not going to go to the doctor. I’m not going to tell anybody about this.”

You’ve been very engaged with other Placer County departments, and with regional, state and even national organizations ranging from the California Mental Health Services Authority — where you served as president — to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Why is collaboration important?

One of the programs I had the opportunity to “launch” in Placer County was Drug Court, a collaborative court. We now have multiple drug courts, several for those involved in the criminal justice system as a result of their addiction but also Veterans Court and Mental Health Court. The collaborative court concept, in which nonviolent criminals enter a rehabilitation program in connection with their case rather than serving jail time, evolved over time. But in about 1995 it was brand new, and a group of us went to visit an existing court. The group included a judge, district attorney, public defender, sheriff and treatment staff. The concept is that all these partners have one goal – a safer community – but we have different strategies to get there. This helps us align our strategies through the court process, so we help people get the treatment they need while holding them accountable. These programs have great success.

I just feel like this county has been a very fabulous place for me work. Placer has always had a culture of collaboration which is beyond Health and Human Services — with nonprofits, with criminal justice. I talk to other counties and they say, “We try and get ahold of these different departments, and they won't come talk to us.” Here, we might disagree but people show up and we do engage with each other. That's so important for me, because the more you can be on the same page, the easier it is to just help somebody. Placer has always been a place where we've been able to evolve and change the way things are, and work on continuing to improve them.

My involvement in the various associations has been helpful because when counties come together we learn what each other are doing, so we don't have to recreate the wheel. We’re all different sizes but there are a lot of similarities, so I think it helps Placer by being involved. I also feel like I helped to contribute to the greater good and the bigger system by participating. The CalMHSA program implemented a statewide prevention and early intervention program to reduce the stigma of mental illness, eliminate suicide and improve student mental health. The campaign was statewide with consistent messages, and we have proven it is making a difference. It works, just like other messaging campaigns we’ve had in California, like wearing seatbelts and reducing the number of people who smoke.

You’ll be retiring shortly. What’s the legacy you hope to leave behind?

I hope to leave in place a vibrant set of services for adults in Placer County, one that is able to withstand the peaks and valleys of funding. One that will remain stable but also continue to grow and evolve.

There is always so much more that we can do. But today in mental health, we have developed a great housing collaborative and have a strong recovery-oriented system. In substance use services, we have developed strong collaboratives with our criminal justice partners. We are now launching a new program to add resources and services that we hope will really help people who are homeless. I feel like I’ve been able to have a hand in developing these programs, and I've planted seeds to help some of the new ideas get started. It's been a really blessed career.

Bauman will retire in May after 27 years with Placer County, having served as director of the Adult System of Care since 1999. Placer County is grateful for her effective leadership and efforts to reform our public mental health system and create safe, healthy communities across our county and state.