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Learn how Foundation board member Dr. Joseph Lee is working to create a more diverse landscape around addiction and mental health at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

Dr. Joseph Lee

Dr. Joseph Lee never dreamed of being president and CEO of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, but that all changed in 2020.

Recently we had the opportunity to talk with the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation board member to discuss the importance of addiction and mental health awareness, and what changes he’s been making at his organization to create more diverse, equitable and inclusive opportunities.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a child psychiatrist and an addiction medicine physician by training, and have been with my organization for 14 years.

I'm an immigrant and naturalized citizen. I was born in Seoul, South Korea and my father brought our family to Oklahoma when I was seven to continue his studies. We basically started over, and my mother worked as a housekeeper to keep our family going. I went to the university and medical school there. I then trained on the East Coast, first at Duke for my Adult Psychiatry residency, and then at Johns Hopkins for my Child and Adolescent Psychiatry residency.

What made you choose to go into psychiatry, specifically focusing on the area of substance abuse?

I was a philosophy major in college. I thought about maybe doing law but I really love the intersection between humanities, philosophy and the traditional sciences. So, when I chose to go to medical school, I really had an affinity for the human condition.

I chose to do psychiatry because it’s really all about the stories for me and then during that work, I saw that people really become the best version of themselves through recovery from their addiction. And that really opened my eyes to this whole other field of medicine, which was not recognized as much at the time as it is today.

Why do you think mental illness and addiction are looked at in a negative way?

It’s largely because of the stigma that some people don't see addiction as a medical condition to be treated, and that ultimately affects resources. Healthcare providers often aren't given adequate resources, which creates a feedback loop that makes it hard for people to access and find good care. And it makes it hard for healthcare professionals to see the obvious.

Case in point, during the opioid epidemic, a lot of people in hospitals were concerned about the procedures and the complications of surgery, but what was really killing people were the pain medications. That was a wake-up call for the healthcare system.

How does the culture play into the emerging trends of mental health and addiction?

Culture actually plays a pretty significant role in both substance use and mental health. How people describe the feelings they're having, the proportion of people who suffer from a particular condition, what drugs a young person might pick up first all differ largely based on culture. So culture not only changes what people use and how people experience things, but how we then communicate about those things in a systematic way.

I think the irony of today is that technology connects us more than ever before, but we're actually more isolated and lonely than ever before. This certainly exacerbates substance use, because addiction is very much a disease of isolation and loneliness; many mental health issues are made worse by loneliness.

I think to me as a physician and a therapist there’s a concept called absolute worth. Absolute worth means that people have value regardless of what they believe in and regardless of what they've done.

Dr. Joseph Lee

Has COVID-19 created any of the recent shifts or trends?

Well, the good parts are that more people value human connection than ever before. I think a lot of people took connection for granted until they were by themselves in their house for a long time. Another good part is telehealth – technology has made it easier for people to access certain kinds of services. So there's been a lot of good change in that way. I think some of the bad things are that some individuals who were already disadvantaged have become even more disadvantaged.

How does your work at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation tie into diversity, equity and inclusion?

Being CEO was not an ambition of mine. I was perfectly happy being a physician, but being in Minneapolis during the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic and so many societal changes, I just felt like this was a time of change and I wanted to make sure that we had the opportunity to seize it. Since that time, my background story as an immigrant has become all the more important, specifically for other people. There's a symbolism in who I am, what I say and represent.

And then our organization has an equity stake. It was not many decades ago when addiction wasn't considered an illness. Our organization was kind of a grassroots organization that grew up to give a safe haven for people with addiction issues before people were ready to accept addiction as a disease. So on the one hand, our organization has always spoken for equity and inclusion. On the other hand, the banner wasn't broad enough, and it wasn't inclusive enough to include disadvantaged communities. So we're trying to broaden that banner even further and see what we can do to help even more communities. So our organizational mission, my personal story all kind of intertwined together to promote a healthy urgency about the issues.

Have there been any programs that you've recently implemented?

We have a graduate school as a part of our organization and our graduate school produces addiction counselors who can also become mental health professionals. There are some key programs we are implementing there that serve as a good example of our commitment to DEI.

We saw our graduate school as a key solution for equity, and we're working on a track where someone starting their life over in recovery or someone who may not come from privilege can enter the school on a scholarship, possibly get a paid internship; and then we're working on loan repayment so that they have a pathway to an equitable future.

We're building different leadership development tracks for people of color. We've done initiatives for the LGBTQIA community to be explicitly inclusive of them. I've made recruiting efforts to our Board of Trustees, so we're bringing on more diverse board members who represent the BIPOC community. Our senior leadership ranks are already majority female now and we're starting to get more diversity as well there.

We’re already partnering with 60 different Native American communities. I think the point of all this is you have to do actionable things. It's one thing to talk about the relevant issues and everyone you know feels a certain way about it. I'm a very practical person and I want to see us practically, concretely, showing the world that we're serving more diverse populations and that we have more diverse employees and that we have more diversity within our ranks and that our programs are directly promoting equity.

Why is it important to push this type of work forward?

I think to me as a physician and a therapist there’s a concept called absolute worth. Absolute worth means that people have value regardless of what they believe in and regardless of what they've done. People have an innate value just for being who they are and they have the capacity within them to change.

What made you want to get involved with the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation?

The Foundation has been a great organization to be a part of and it's really helped my development as a person, my career, helped me spiritually even and in so many different ways. The organization, I think, does a lot of good in a very balanced way. I think it's one of these organizations people want to be affiliated with. It's a really incredible organization to be a part of because you actually do good, you actually promote a lot of good.

The Foundation doubled down on its commitment to equity before the pandemic. You aligned their vision and strategies around it. That foresight put them in an authentic position to help the community during the pandemic and the civil turmoil that followed. I think that speaks volumes about what a great organization the Foundation is and the Foundation’s leaders.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I'm just really privileged to be a part of a great organization that really believes in the capacity of communities to heal and make changes. I think that's something very special and ties into the vision and mission at the organization that I work for.

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