Director of Delaware’s substance abuse division retires

 (photo courtesy Michael Barbieri/Del. State House)

(photo courtesy Michael Barbieri/Del. State House)

Mike Barbieri, director of the health department’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, has retired.

The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services is preparing a national search for a Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health director following the sudden retirement of director Mike Barbieri.

Barbieri, who served as director for two years, left his position July 6.

The former state representative stepped down from government office in 2015 to take the DHSS position. Then-Secretary of Health Rita Landgraf asked Barbieri to lead the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health because of his background—the licensed social worker founded Crossroads of Delaware, a substance abuse-treatment program in Wilmington for youth.

Health department spokesperson Jill Fredel didn’t divulge why the former director made the decision to retire. DHSS Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker praised Barbieri in an email to staff on July 3rd notifying them of his retirement.

“I thank Mike for his service to the people of Delaware. For decades, he has been a force for good for people with behavioral health issues, especially vulnerable children. On behalf of all of us at DHSS, I wish him the best in his new endeavors and honor his dedicated service,” she wrote in the email.

Walker added: “Mike helped reform the state’s mental health system, moving it away from a facility-based system to a strong, community-based system of care in which people with serious and persistent mental illness could live their lives with necessary wrap-around services as members of the community….Mike also worked to respond to the addiction epidemic in our state, both as a legislator and as DSAMH Director. He increased the funding and availability of addiction treatment services across the state, championed legislation to increase the access to the opioid-reversing medication naloxone, and got the 911/Good Samaritan Law through the General Assembly. His work has changed and saved countless lives.”

However, Barbieri, who took his position during the Markell administration, said the new Secretary of Health envisioned a different direction for the department.

“There’s a new secretary, and the new secretary has the interest, or should have the ability, to bring in the people she feels are compatible with her views and vision, and so I decided to retire and give her that option,” he said.

When asked if he was encouraged to leave, Barbieri said, “I wasn’t discouraged.”

Until DHSS Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker finds a replacement, Dr. Clay Watson, a psychiatrist and medical director for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, will lead the division.

Watson’s medical director salary of $214,672.50 will remain the same as he takes on the acting director position. While that’s about $70,000 higher than Barbieri’s salary, Watson is not taking a pay raise or pay cut to the standard salary of his psychiatrist and medical director position.

Fredel said the health department will continue to serve the public during its search for a permanent director. The state currently faces a heroin epidemic—308 people died from an overdose last year.

“We’re very fortunate Dr. Watson is there, we expect it to continue to run under his leadership until Secretary Walker can find a replacement,” Fredel said. “We have a lot of work to do, we have an addiction epidemic in our state, and we have a mental health system that continues to need attention.”

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