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"Clients, in many ways, have been my best mentors."

Thomas KirkThomas A. Kirk, Jr., Ph.D.
Connecticut Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services (DMHAS)

Commissioner Kirk’s career began as a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology. His career, however, would gradually take on a new focus.

How did you get started in the addictions treatment and recovery services field?
While teaching at the University, I was presented with an opportunity to do some consulting work in the VA prison system and elected to take a two year leave to participate in the project. One of my responsibilities was to conduct psychological evaluations on the prison population, which included those who suffered from substance abuse. At the end of program, even though I received tenure, I decided not to go back. I found the applied work in the prison system enjoyable and wanted to continue this work privately as a consultant. Since then my career has included roles in the design, delivery and management of healthcare services for persons with psychiatric and/or substance use disorders.

Did you have mentors along the way?
Yes, I have had a variety of mentors throughout my career. To start, clients, in many ways, have been my best mentors. What I’ve heard from them and other patients has been tremendously impactful. Moreover, listening to those who are receiving services is often the best resource, because they see things on a daily basis.

Another mentor was the warden at the state prison. He had “people-sense” and helped me understand the dynamics of an organization. He taught me how to plan and organize, while taking into account each stakeholder who would have their own interests and agenda. I also learned a great deal from my supervisor in Washington, DC. Others described him as indecisive. However, I soon discovered that he wasn’t indecisive but rather, people were trying to push him to a certain decision point. Through his example, I learned to first clear the cobwebs off an issue and then identify the important versus unimportant. Now in my office I keep this lesson at the forefront with a little sculpture of a person holding an oar trying to get somewhere. At the base it says, “When you’re up to your backside in alligators remember your purpose was to drain the swamp.” For me, it’s an important reminder.

What advice would you give to emerging leaders?

  • In order to stay ahead of the game, broaden your scope. Pay attention and learn about the larger health care environment. For example, read journals and other types of literature from the hospital system and join organizations such as the American Hospital Association.
  • Understand different perspectives. It is important to hear from different disciplines.
  • Know your audience and pay attention to your communications strategy. Understand each party’s area of interest to move an agenda forward.
  • Become skilled in listening and teaching.
  • Develop and reinforce your sense of humor. Practitioners are passionate about what they do but sometimes we take ourselves much too seriously. Laugh at the stupid and “crazy” stuff that we do or that happens.
  • Renew your energy and find balance.

What do you do for fun and relaxation?
I enjoy sports and love to watch baseball and football games. I also like the outdoors, fresh air, and photography. In addition, I never work on Saturday. This time is for family and relaxation. Every year we spend two weeks at the beach. It is a full family event…son and daughter in law and two grandchildren, adult daughter, one sister and all her children and grandchildren, and another sister – we all vacation together for a few weeks. I find the beach and family to be renewing of my spirit and energy.

What advice do you have for mentors/managers?

  • When you’re a mentor, you take on a leadership role. Put together a team smarter than you. Coach and help this talented group to make music together and be in sync with each other.
  • Have firm deliverables to manage performance. Do a 360 degree evaluation once a year and ask for feedback. This is a chance to benefit from their coaching and evaluate your management skills too.
  • Help move young talent forward.

Commissioner Kirk's Bio

In 2000 Thomas Kirk was first appointed Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) and subsequently reappointed by different Governors three times. The agency is responsible for the largest public/private healthcare service system for persons with psychiatric and/or substance use disorders in Connecticut. The DMHAS has a $650 million budget supporting hospital and community-based care provided by over 3,500 state employees, as well as an array of prevention, treatment and recovery support services funded by DMHAS and provided by approximately 175 private non-profit care providers.

Commissioner Kirk serves on several prominent boards, including the National Advisory Council of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), The Foundation for Mental Health and the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) Research Institute. He is an established leader who has been a consultant in such areas as co-occurring disorders, offender reentry strategies, prevention/health promotion services, integrated databases, outcome measures, jail diversion services, evidence-based practices, and recovery-oriented systems of care.

Dr. Kirk earned his Ph.D. in experimental/clinical psychology from the Catholic University of America. He has authored numerous professional papers and presentations and received national career awards. He is also a member of the American Psychological and American Hospital Associations.

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