New behavioral health director hired to lead Mental Health SF effort

San Francisco has hired Dr. Hillary Kunins as the new director of Behavioral Health Services and leader of the newly...

San Francisco has hired Dr. Hillary Kunins as the new director of Behavioral Health Services and leader of the newly launched Mental Health SF program, which is intended to dramatically improve care for those struggling on the streets.

Mayor London Breed announced the hire Wednesday along with Dr. Grant Colfax, head of the Department of Public Health, which includes the Behavioral Health Services.

Kunins, an internist and addiction medicine physician, currently serves as an executive deputy commissioner for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She helped work on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $60 million strategy to address the opioid crisis, which was called HealingNYC and launched in 2017. She is expected to begin her job in San Francisco in March.

“This is a critical time for behavioral health care in San Francisco,” Breed said. “As we emerge from this pandemic and move towards recovery, we have an opportunity to transform how we deliver services and care to better serve those in need in our city.”

Among Kunins’ chief duties will be oversight of the implementation of Mental Health SF, a program called for in legislation approved by the Board of Supervisors and Breed. Elements of the program are underway including the launch of a Street Crisis Response Team.

Breed said Kunins will help The City “build on our work to reform mental health services, continue our work to implement Mental Health SF, and find innovative ways to address the overdose crisis in our city.”

The City saw a record high of 699 fatal drug overdose deaths in 2020, fueled largely by the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, according to a Medical Examiner report. Overdose deaths have seen a dramatic rise in recent years.

“Just as San Francisco faces an historic crisis in overlapping mental health, substance use and homelessness concerns, The City also leads the country with its Mental Health SF blueprint and commitment to innovation in behavioral health care,” Kunins said. “I am honored to join this team and bring my experience to envision and implement an equitable, comprehensive and respectful public health approach to serving San Franciscans with mental health and substance use needs.”

She said in a 2018 interview that health care providers and physicians need to care for those with substance use disorders and “to think about it like diabetes or like high blood pressure.” She spoke of herself treating patients successfully for their opioid addictions by prescribing Buprenorphine and said it was important for people to “know that folks can get better.”

“Until you see that and personally experience it, as a clinician it can be hard to imagine,” she said during the interview.

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