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Opinion: A case for DEI business model in health care

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Community Mental Health Centers like Burrell Behavioral Health are no strangers to serving marginalized populations. It is part of our very fabric, present in our industry’s history since inception. A commitment to serving the underseen, underheard and underserved is the very reason former President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act in 1963. And it’s why leaders like Missouri’s retired U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt made securing the future of community mental health part of his legacy.

Recently, there has been a good deal of conversation about the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion. DEI is often misunderstood or discussed in a limited context, i.e. racial justice or LGBTQIA rights. These are important, topical components of DEI action but not the full scope of an effective DEI strategy.

Burrell has a DEI department that supports the needs of our staff, services and communities by reinforcing the connection between belonging and brain health.

And while it’s a part of our history, it hasn’t always been a part of our business model. I hired Dr. Shelly Farnan as our first leader of DEI shortly after I came to Burrell in 2017, and I’d like to share a little bit about why I formally embrace DEI in our system.

  • It’s good for culture. Personal safety is the most essential component of brain health, and no system can function at its highest potential if all employees don’t feel safe, supported and valued. DEI promotes more than just fair treatment but also true engagement. We all understand that the more we feel included and truly experience belonging at work, the more likely we’ll stay with our employer. More and more, data show that younger employees not only expect but also demand an employer that is committed to inclusion and social justice. Gallup estimates disengaged employees cost U.S. companies between $450 billion and $500 billion each year. This is an issue we ignore at our peril.
  • It leads to better work. The most inspiring feats I’ve seen our team accomplish have been because of the differences among our staff and leadership, not because we all thought the same way. Diversity of thought, identity and lived experience leads to more thoughtful solutions and an environment where all staff know they will be heard and valued.
  • It’s a solution to a problem. Workforce has been and remains health care’s most pressing issue, and that includes mental health care. With this reality and knowing that our future is diversifying, why would we not seek to diversify our staff by deliberately recruiting and hiring people from all populations, and work to retain them through inclusivity and organizational support? It is our responsibility to create businesses that are prepared to serve the needs of the future, which means attracting employees of the future – your children, my children and our future generations.
  • It leads to better care. Our future is diverse. As our company continues to grow into new and larger markets, the diversity of the populations we serve is increasing as well. It is incredibly important to many clients, when they seek care from a health professional, to see someone with whom they can identify. This could mean same race, sexual identity, disability or something else. At the very least, they deserve a provider who is familiar and comfortable with their needs, experiences and realities.

This is what DEI is to Burrell. What DEI is not is an attempt to check a box, push an agenda or make a political stand. It is perhaps inevitable that DEI will wind up being politicized, whether we like it or not. For a behavioral health provider, it is not about politics, it is about saving lives, reducing suffering and supporting humanity to develop lives worth living. This is why it is vital that we don’t shy away from science, best practice and, above all, caring for the unique needs of our communities. DEI allows us to capitalize on the beauty and advantages that diversity and belonging bring to our company and communities.

To accomplish this, we must welcome the best and most talented teams into our places of business, and support all who seek our products or services.

As a human, this lifts me up. As a businessman, I can promise I don’t and won’t regret it.

C.J. Davis is president and CEO of Burrell Behavioral Health and the CEO of Brightli. He can be reached at


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