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Marie Williams

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

Marie Williams, LCSW, gratefully serves as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS).  She was reappointed to her position by Governor Bill Lee on January 19, 2019 and was initially appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam, effective October 22, 2016. 

As Commissioner, Ms. Williams oversees and leads the department in its role as the state’s public mental health and substance abuse authority.  Under her leadership and with support from two different governors and the Tennessee General Assembly, the TDMHSAS annual budget has grown from $337 million to about $730 million.  In all, the department serves approximately 750,000 Tennesseans annually who are struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.  Ms. Williams provides leadership and oversight to more than 1,850 full-time employees who assist individuals in securing prevention, treatment, and recovery services for serious mental illness, serious emotional disturbances, and substance abuse disorders.  Her duties as commissioner also include system planning; monitoring, licensing, evaluating, and setting policy and quality standards; collaborating with other state and community agencies; and working to educate the community about mental health and substance abuse services.  Ms. Williams’s oversight responsibilities include about 1,000 contracts with community mental health and substance abuse providers, the operation of four regional mental health institutes with about 8,000 annual admissions, and contracts with three additional private psychiatric hospitals which serve about 3,000 people annually.

In her time as Commissioner, Ms. Williams has served as a leader in addressing several essential issues facing Tennessee including behavioral health workforce challenges, mental health struggles of youth and young adults, the opioid crisis, criminal justice reform, leveraging the abilities and resources of the faith-based community, and expanding peer-led services, but her career in behavioral health services has been marked by a special passion for housing.

Commissioner Williams began her career in Memphis, Tennessee supporting people experiencing homelessness and mental illness.  Her success there led to employment with TDMHSAS starting in 2000 as the Director of Housing Planning and Development.  Her signature achievement, the Creating Homes Initiative (CHI), has leveraged more than $1 billion and developed more than 32,000 supportive housing options for people diagnosed with mental illness and co-occurring disorders.  Based on the success of the original CHI program, Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly expanded it twice to create housing for people recovering from substance use disorder (CHI 2.0) and re-entering communities from incarceration (CHI 3.0).

As the pandemic realities of workforce disruption, burnout, and uncertainty facing all sectors of the economy became clear, Commissioner Williams convened and led a workgroup to study the issue, gather data, and establish solutions.  The workgroup included representatives from treatment provider agencies, consumer and family advocacy groups, as well as universities and colleges that train the professionals working in the field.  She also leveraged relationships at the state’s Medicaid agency to ensure that the entire sphere of public behavioral health was represented.  Under Ms. Williams’s leadership, this diverse group of stakeholders developed a roadmap for Tennessee’s elected decisionmakers to consideration that eventually led to an additional $36 million recurring investment of state dollars for TDMHSAS contracted providers.

Another reality of the pandemic that Commissioner Williams realized early on was the outsized impact on the mental health of Tennessee’s youth and young adults.  With support from Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly and in partnership with the department’s contracted community mental health providers, Ms. Williams created the Children’s Behavioral Health Safety Net.  In the model of the existing Behavioral Health Safety Net for adults, the Children’s BHSN ensured that any Tennessee child who was uninsured or underinsured would have access to essential outpatient mental health services.  Commissioner Williams also led the expansion of the department’s services for children and youth taking the School-Based Behavioral Health Liaison program from a few dozen counties to statewide and initiating the Tennessee Resiliency Project which allowed grant applicants unprecedented latitude in designing services to meet the need in their areas.  Her leadership and decision making are essential as the department works to operationalize Governor Bill Lee’s $250 million K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund.

Under the direction of Gov. Bill Haslam, Ms. Williams co-chaired a workgroup of commissioners, state and local lawmakers, and law enforcement officers to develop a comprehensive plan to address opioid addiction and reduce overdose deaths in Tennessee.  This plan became known as TN Together and was the signature policy initiative of Gov. Haslam’s final year in office.  The $30 million plan addressed the crisis by making significant investments in substance abuse treatment, addiction prevention, and law enforcement.  Since then, Ms. Williams has continued to advocate for expanded funding for prevention, treatment, and recovery services with more than $30 million in state funding added under the administration of Governor Bill Lee and more than $150 million in awarded federal grants since March 2020.  As lawsuit settlements stemming from the opioid crisis send hundreds of millions of dollars to Tennessee, Ms. Williams’s leadership remains key as she serves as a non-voting member of the state’s Opioid Abatement Council.

Ms. Williams’s efforts in criminal justice reform include advocating, increasing funding, and expanding the network of recovery courts to encompass 84 recovery courts in Tennessee with dozens more mental health courts starting operation soon.  Additionally, Ms. Williams is responsible for leadership and oversight of the department’s juvenile justice program which created alternatives to out-of-home placements in areas of the state where options are limited.  In 2019, Governor Bill Lee called on Commissioner Williams’s leadership to chair the Behavioral Health Subcommittee of his Criminal Justice Investment Task Force.  Additionally, Ms. Williams has provided criminal justice leadership at the national level serving with the Council of State Governments Justice Center Advisory Board since 2018 and serving as the group’s Chair starting in 2022.

Faith in God has always been a strong motivator for Ms. Williams as she moved through her personal and professional life, and that influence showed her the value of direct outreach to communities of all faiths across Tennessee.  During her time as Deputy Commissioner, Ms. Williams helped create the Department’s Faith-Based Initiative, and under her leadership as Commissioner, the initiative grew to encompass two department employees and four regional Faith-Based Community Coordinators.  The program’s signature achievement is Certified Recovery Congregation program which has certified more than 1,000 houses of faith to create and share recovery resources and support Tennesseans in their journey of wellness.

Increasing the role of peer-led services has been a significant theme of Ms. Williams’s time as Commissioner.  Under her leadership, programs in the department have been started and/or greatly expanded that have placed Certified Peer Recovery Specialists in places where they can refer people to treatment, work with communities of faith, work inside of emergency departments, train people on reversing overdose, and more.  Commissioner Williams responded to the demand for certified peers both from within the department’s programs and from community providers and other settings by greatly increasing capacity in the department’s CPRS trainings.  As a result, Tennessee reached a milestone with more than 1,200 active CPRS during her tenure as Commissioner.

In her previous position as Deputy Commissioner, Ms. Williams served as top advisor to the Commissioner and managed the departmental budget of more than $337 million.  Ms. Williams successfully assisted in the department’s transformation initiative which closed a 150-bed long-term care facility.  Through strong partnership and collaboration with community providers, all patients were transitioned into community-based care, and the facility’s previous operating budget of $20.5 million was reinvested into community-based services.  Ms. Williams’s leadership secured the support of three East Tennessee private psychiatric in-patient hospital partners to provide services to those patients previously served by Lakeshore Mental Health Institute. 

Commissioner Williams is the recipient of numerous professional and community awards from national and state groups including the Excellence in Advocacy Individual Achievement Award from the National Council for Behavioral Health, the George Goodman and Ruth P. Brudney National Social Work Award from Mental Health America, the Alumni Professional Achievement Award from the University of Tennessee Knoxville, the Vision of Hope Award from NAMI Tennessee, the Senator Douglas Henry Award for Service to Children and Families at Risk from the University of Tennessee College of Social Work.  Ms. Williams lives in Nashville, and she is the mother of Nikki Williams.