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Joel Hetler

Joel Hetler, the new full-time director of the U Center for Excellence in Children's Mental Health, brings community experience to bridge the path between research and practice.

Children's mental health leader is back to campus

Public engagement will help to shape research agenda

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Sept. 5, 2007

As Minnesota children head back to school this fall, psychologist and community leader Joel Hetler finds himself back at school, too. Hetler, '76, has returned to campus as the new director of the Center for Excellence in Children's Mental Health (CECMH). With almost two decades of community expertise, he hopes to bridge the gap between research and practice in children's mental health through public engagement.

Hetler sees CECMH as a catalyst to connect the community and the University to benefit those who really matter-the children.

"The traditional lore is that it takes 25 years to go from research to practice in children's mental health, and that is just not acceptable," he says. "There are too many children and families really struggling with these issues. If we can connect the research to practice, we can help people a lot more directly that we do now. It is a shame not to."

CECMH was founded in 2004 as part of the President's Initiative on Children, Youth, and Families, one of eight interdisciplinary initiatives. After operating under a part-time coordinator for three years, CECMH created a director position, drawing criteria from interviews and focus groups with community and University members.

Hetler met and exceeded all of their crucial criteria for the position, says CECMH coordinator Cari Michaels.

"We needed someone who could be a fund-raiser and the public face of the center, but more importantly, we needed someone who could really be the connector to places outside the University," says Michaels. "Moving a high-profile community person like Joel into this position will really provide balance in our organization and open our doors to a lot of people we would not be able to partner with otherwise."

With a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the U, Hetler began his work as manager of children's mental health in Ramsey County in 1989, after the Children's Mental Health Act was put into place. There he developed the county's first children's mental health program. Over 18 years, he managed and expanded the program, supervising service areas from community-based case management to mobile crisis teams and child-welfare screening. In addition, Hetler has been involved in developing policy to shape the public mental health system in the state of Minnesota.

"The traditional lore is that it takes 25 years to go from research to practice in children's mental health, and that is just not acceptable."

Hetler's Ramsey County colleague Linda Hall, a supervisor of children's mental health case managers, emphasizes his dedication to the community. One aspect was developing the Children's Mental Health Collaborative, bringing together parents and providers from human services, community corrections, and the school system to address issues from all their perspectives.

"He has been a leader in the development of a 'cohesive-community approach' to children's mental health--a way to make the service-delivery system as effective as possible," says Hall.

It's this cohesive-community approach that makes Hetler's vision and goals for CECMH so significant. Bringing research into practice in the community must be accompanied by an infusion of community opinion and ideas into the research agenda.

"There is a big return in helping the University understand needs from the community's perspective," says Hetler. "[Using community perspectives] to grow the research agenda and influence training programs can help us produce interventions and clinicians that are better suited to go out and deal with the daily problems."

Michaels agrees.

"We need to emphasize that these partnerships are two-way streets," she says. "We need to have community practitioners informing researchers about what their next steps should be. If researchers are doing work that does not apply in the community, then it doesn't help anyone, and in the meantime, it is the children who are waiting."

Hetler recognizes the historical opportunity he's been given at a time when researchers are becoming clearer about what works and what doesn't. He hopes to work closely to connect the community and the University while educating both about the obstacles they can address together.

"If you think about the links between the research and the client, there are so many missing connections," says Hetler. "Making those connections is a really important part of our work."

FURTHER READING Two-way street: Statewide series on children's mental health exchanges knowledge from research and practice (March 28, 2007)

You can also learn more about Ramsey County's initiatives to serve children, youth, and their families dealing with mental health issues at Ramsey County Children's Mental Health Services.


Stephanie Wilkes is a senior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail wilk0268@umn.edu.