FLORENCE — After 20 years at the helm as director of Riverbend Center for Mental Health, Bryan Libell is retiring at the end of January.
His career spans 27 years as he was also assistant director to Tommy Pirkle, who retired after 30 years.
"We've been really blessed here with stability in this position, and it has made a real difference for the center to have continuity in this office," Libell said.
The 66-year-old Libell says he's been taken aback when people say "congratulations" after hearing about his plans.
"It's funny, because I didn't really anticipate hearing congratulations," he said. "I'm not sure what I thought people would say, but not that."
Libell acknowledges that throughout most of his career in mental health administration he's been tasked with figuring out how to turn negatives into positives.
Take for example the closing of state mental health facilities. The movement was afoot when Libell took over, but during his two decades in the position the state closed four facilities, including one in Decatur, which was the closest to the Shoals.
"It was a transition and we knew it was coming, but still we were hit with the issue of the lack of services for individuals who needed to be there," Libell said. "And because we're still operating on much the same funding as in the early 2000s we had to be really creative and forward thinking."
The answer was more supervised living arrangements outside of the institutional setting.
When Libell took over the administrator's post, there were 14 beds in supervised living facilities. Today there are 55. Although more are needed, he said treatments and other options to help those individuals have evolved.
A $40 million cut from the state's General Fund in 2008 has never been recovered, nor does Libell believe it ever will be.
"It forces change and it means you do things differently," he said.
In the case of Riverbend, Libell said children's services have expanded greatly. All eight school systems in the coverage area of Colbert, Lauderdale and Franklin counties have programs that are mostly funded by Medicaid.
"We're doing a better job with early intervention with children and adults," he said.
On the downside, there remains the fact that 40 percent of adult clients at Riverbend have no insurance. For most, it's a case of individuals working who are still unable to afford insurance.
"That remains the biggest pet peeve of mine with no Medicaid expansion, because they just don't look at mental health as a health expense," he said.
Chief Clinical Officer Liz James said Riverbend will miss Libell's leadership.
"He's brought us through some pretty tough times. He's been an advocate for employees here and consumers, a real leader and this community will miss him," James said.
"He's been open to allowing us to think outside the box and develop new programs, even some that no one else around the state is doing."
Libell said despite funding cuts, there have been good advancements in his time at Riverbend, such as with medications and staffing.
When he arrived 27 years ago, there were two full-time psychiatrists on staff. Today, there are three full-time psychiatrists, one part-time and four psychiatric practitioners.
"Most of our services were in-house when I started," he said. "Now we're also going out in the community and case managers are meeting those needs."
Community mental health officers are working in all three counties Riverbend serves. The concept was brand new when he came in.
"Our relationship with law enforcement has been a huge plus in helping to avert tragedies," he said. "With this training, we can provide officers help in understanding what mental illness is. It makes a huge difference in the community when that understanding is there."
There have been recent losses as well, including the closing of the prevention services program that was funded by a grant that has been cut.
"Economically, we couldn't keep providing those services so we had to phase it out, and we've absorbed that staff into other positions," he said.
As in any career, there have been some things Libell said he regrettably didn't accomplish.
"I would have liked to have had a free-standing psychiatric facility, but it just couldn't be accomplished," he said. "We've provided (psychiatric) services for the in-house component but we don't operate it. "
As for Libell's replacement, he said the Riverbend board of directors is accepting applications for the next 30 days in hopes of hiring by late December.
The board is conducting an open search limiting external candidates to within the state.