A framed poster that says, “Activism is equal parts radical love and burning fury,” each letter a different color over a navy blue background, leans against a wall near the entrance of Angela Cecys’ new office. She needs to hang it up still, she said.
For the 30 year old Cecys, setting up her office is one of many items on a growing to-do list. She started her new role – senior strategist for public safety and health with the Cleveland Department of Public Health – a little more than a month ago. She is still getting settled in but is already working to bring existing mental health resources together to address needs in the city.
City Council created her position after approving $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. The money will also allow for the expansion of co-response teams. Cecys started the job mid-June.
She is tasked with building a working relationship between public health and public safety efforts, planning a long-term strategy for crisis intervention teams, co-response and care response, and finding funding for those programs.
The co-response program partners a Cleveland police officer with a licensed social worker to respond to or follow up on mental health emergency calls.
Care response is a model where experts that are not police – such as social workers and EMTs – respond to mental health crisis calls.
Experience in co-response, management
Across from her desk is a white board listing area organizations that deal with mental health and safety, including MHRAC (the city’s Mental Health Response Advisory Committee), the nonprofit Magnolia Clubhouse, and Vera Institute of Justice, a national nonprofit research organization.
She has color-coded them to identify which organizations focus on homelessness and housing, police crisis response, care response, and policy work, among other issues. Next to the organizations is a list of ideas, things such as: “create case plan study” and “new marketing info strategy.”
Cecys joins the public health department with a wide range of crisis response experience, from working directly with clients in housing case management for Coleman Health Services, a behavioral health agency, to being a social worker on a co-response team from 2020 to 2022.
Most recently, she managed FrontLine’s Project for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness program, where she oversaw a team of outreach workers who connected with unhoused people experiencing mental health and substance use disorders.
Signal Cleveland sat with Cecys to learn more about her role, how she got involved in social work, and some of her priorities.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you get into behavioral and mental health care?
I never wanted to just sit at a desk. I grew up in a household where you helped other people.
My parents did a lot for the community. I grew up in Lorain. They were always willing to help neighbors, friends, different community institutions, church–you know, things like that.
But I also grew up in an environment where when you were feeling all of the emotions one feels, there really wasn’t much out there. There was no education around who to call. Schools didn’t really talk about mental health.
I realized early on I really was interested in why people do the things they do and say the things they say. And culture was really interesting to me. I almost became an anthropologist.
I started out as a classical anthropologist, then transitioned through philosophy and psychology, and then it led me to HDFS [Human Development and Family Services] and I really wanted to help youth and children struggling with mental health, because I didn’t think there was much support back then.
What are some of the lessons you’re bringing with you from previous jobs?
It’s all about community building around this topic, community education, telling the story of the work that Cleveland Police and the behavioral health community has done since 2018 and 2020 moving this work forward. I want to be able to tell that story.
I bring my clinical network that I’ve built up over the years, I bring my boots-on-the-ground recent understanding of where the gaps are in the system: The frustrations that clients have with the system, the realities of theory versus practice.
In theory, you think something is going to work one way, but then when you’re out there in the community, it doesn’t always work that way, or that easily or that efficiently. And I have that insight that I can bring to this role.
What are some of your priorities in this new role?
My first priority is strengthening and expanding the current co-responder team and helping to plug gaps in client care.
Knowing that when we do that, the data that we collect and the story that will tell from the work we’ve been doing since 2020, will show a natural progression toward care response being the next phase of all of this work we’ve been tackling.
The other priority is around hiring and retention. So not only hiring police officers that are interested and want to do this kind of work and be involved in community policing, [but also] crisis clinicians.
We have a large amount of licensed individuals who are in private practice, and I want to have conversations with them to figure out what it will take to get them back involved in community behavioral health roles because we are sorely lacking the staff we need to perform our jobs effectively and meet client needs.
The next priority is [finding] grant funding and funding sources and streams of funding around what that next evolution of care response will look like.
Can you talk about the differences between care-response and co-response, and the need for both?
So 911 is our call-taking system for anybody who needs help. That’s how we’ve educated the community over decades. And we can educate the community to call 311 or 211 or 988. We can, but the community is going to do what they need to do in that moment.
The reality of the situation is if people are calling 911, we need police to be trained and have the resources available to them to understand the behavioral health system and how to respond correctly.
Care response is, can we come up with a team going out and responding to police calls that really don’t need a police response? Because people call 911 when they need help. There are a large number of call types that police don’t need to be responding to.
So who else can respond to those calls? And how do we get the community and the current structure of crisis responders to trust in these new types of responders?
How does it feel having such big responsibility being 30 years old?
I think I hold a lot of power in this role. And I’m starting to realize that.
There are policies and laws in place that directly work against the work [clinicians] are trying to do to help an individual. We can’t solve all of our community’s problems at the individual level by providing them resources.
And if that’s the case, then we need people who understand and who have done the work on the level of working with clients and getting their needs met, going to the Social Security office, calling the food stamps hotline.
And if you’re up here working at this level, and you have no understanding of what’s going on down here with clients, we’re never going to be able to solve our systemic issues.
So I see it as a natural progression in my career. I’m passionate about this work. Mental health isn’t just counseling. There’s so much more that goes into mental health and fighting for our most vulnerable citizens that have the greatest need because we’re doing them a disservice right now in our community.