Whether at a poker table or a negotiating table, Henry Tomes, PhD, is an understated yet formidable opponent, say his friends and colleagues. Tomes doesn't attract attention by making flashy plays or instigating arguments. Instead, he calmly observes the group's dynamics and personalities.
"You begin to think 'Wow, maybe he doesn't have anything to say,'" says Maury Lieberman, who sits with Tomes on the Board of Trustees of Green Door, a Washington, D.C., mental health services agency that helps people with persistent mental illness. "And then what usually happens is that Henry responds at a critical, strategic moment…and when Henry talks, everyone listens."
Many people have listened to Tomes during his 42-year career in psychology-including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who in 1978 asked for Tomes's input on a plan for nationwide, comprehensive mental health coverage. Tomes's group imagined a system where mental health care and primary care would be integrated within community health centers-though the group's recommendations fell by the wayside during the subsequent administration. At the time, Tomes directed a community mental health center in Tennessee. He went on to head mental health departments in Washington and Massachusetts and, in 1991, he came to APA to lead the Public Interest Directorate as its first full-time director.
As a public administrator, Tomes helped shape the country's mental health system, says W. Rodney Hammond, PhD, director of violence prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Injury Center. Hammond once worked under Tomes at Meharry Medical College's community mental health center in Nashville, Tenn.
"Henry was a part of the transformation of mental health from institutionalization to one where service delivery was provided in the community...helping people find jobs and housing and build social skills," says Hammond.
Even after Tomes shifted his professional focus away from mental health administration and toward broader social issues, he continued to encourage community-based mental health through his volunteer work. For example, he helps Green Door navigate the Washington, D.C., Medicaid reimbursement policy and forge relationships with people in the department of mental health, says Green Door president Judith Johnson.
Recently, Tomes stepped down as chair of Green Door's board, and next month he will retire from his position as executive director of APA's Public Interest Directorate.
During his tenure in the Public Interest Directorate, Tomes has helped harness psychology's power to address a broad range of social issues, including violence, AIDS and discrimination, says APA CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD. His career showed black psychologists they could aspire to high-profile administrative positions, adds Bertha Holliday, PhD, director of APA's Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs.
Tomes also helped a fledgling Association of Black Psychologists get off the ground and link itself with APA, she notes. In fact, he helped found the association in 1968 and served as its co-chair in 1969 and 1970, alongside Robert L. Williams, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee.
"Henry is part of a generation of minority psychologists who helped to define different professional avenues that we could assume," Holliday says.
One such person Tomes mentored, Gwen Keita, PhD, currently the director of APA's Women's Program Office, will take over as Public Interest executive director in January. (See next month's Monitor.)
Trailblazing in public health
Discrimination nearly stalled Tomes's early career. As a senior graduate student at Penn State, he interviewed for faculty positions at an Eastern Psychological Association meeting. Tomes still remembers the surprise on people's faces when they saw that he was black.
"I left without any kind of offer," says Tomes.
He eventually found a position as a psychiatry instructor at Meharry Medical College, a historically black institution in Nashville, Tenn. He went on to direct Meharry's community mental health center, where Tomes broadened the mission to include prevention of mental illness and treatment of a broad array of behavioral problems such as addiction. Tomes's reforms made Meharry's community mental health center one of the country's most innovative, says Hammond.
After nearly two decades at Meharry, Tomes took a job heading up community mental health services for Washington state. Later-in part because his wife wanted to move back to the East Coast-Tomes served as deputy commissioner of mental health for Massachusetts. And, in 1989, the governor of Massachusetts put Tomes in charge of the state's entire mental health system, making him the first African American and first psychologist to hold the position.
As he had in his previous posts, Tomes brought to Massachusetts a focus on prevention and rehabilitation. Among Tomes's accomplishments there was the creation of about 30 "clubhouses," which help people recovering from serious mental illness transition back to the community.
Fellow commissioners-including social worker King Davis, PhD, who was heading Virginia's Department of Mental Health-viewed Tomes as a model of diplomacy, longevity and effectiveness in a perilous position.
"At the time, the average tenure of a mental health commissioner was only one and a half years," says Davis, now director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas at Austin. "Tomes was good about sharing his knowledge of how to manage in that tenuous environment." In particular, Davis learned from Tomes how to work with people with different motivations and goals, including state legislators, members of the media and governors.
After four years in Massachusetts, Tomes left public health administration for a position as executive director of APA's newly minted Public Interest Directorate.
"The best decision I ever made was taking this job," says Tomes.
Giving psychology away through APA
APA suited Tomes best because it allowed him to address an array of social issues, from AIDS to aging to minority issues, he says. Tomes's sense of responsibility to all people-especially marginalized and ethnic-minority groups-found apt expression in this job, say his colleagues.
He wasted no time harnessing APA's potential. Tomes linked the directorate with the association's Public Policy Office and worked with public policy staff to advocate for a slate of new issues, such as supporting federal legislation to lessen mental health disparities among ethnic minorities.
And perhaps most importantly, Tomes helped APA to open lines of communication and develop collaborations with ethnic-minority associations like the Association of Black Psychologists, says APA CEO Anderson.
Tomes also headed efforts to create offices within the directorate on women's issues, children and families, people with disabilities, and gay, lesbian and bisexual concerns.
"Public Interest has developed new relationships with other nonprofit organizations and with government agencies," says Holliday. "He has brought APA's influence to bear in places where it previously had not been."
One program that Tomes is particularly proud of is the Adults and Children Together Against Violence campaign. By collaborating with groups such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Ad Council, APA has educated the public about the causes and solutions to interpersonal violence through a national advertising campaign and a training program.
"Public Interest is one of the most entrepreneurial entities in the APA Central Office, bringing in over $4 million a year in grants," says Anderson.
The job of directing APA's Public Interest Directorate is particularly well suited to Tomes, say his colleagues, because-like the directorate itself-Tomes is dedicated to improving human welfare. He sells tickets to fundraisers for the Green Door and donates his own money as well. Last month, he walked two miles in a walk-a-thon to raise public awareness of homelessness and mental illness.
For Tomes, homelessness and mental illness are not abstract causes, says Lieberman, who recalls a recent Green Door event that Tomes attended.
"It was a setting where some board members might have felt uncomfortable," says Lieberman. "Many of the people are relearning social manners, are on medication. Sometimes their behavior can appear bizarre. And Henry comes to the reception and moves freely, engaging clients in conversations, asking about their concerns."
Tomes is equally generous with his time when helping his colleagues, they say. Through the Association of Black Psychologists and other outlets, Tomes helped mentor hundreds of ethnic-minority psychologists, notes Hammond.
"I am feeling a real sense of loss about Henry's retirement," Hammond says. "I have a career where I feel like there are only a few people I can call who can understand some of the complicated policy issues that I have to address…and Henry's number was a source of support for me. He is the encyclopedia of problem-solving in public policy."
For his part, Tomes promises to continue to advise fellow psychologists-even perhaps some very young ones.
"What I am really looking forward to is spending time with my eight grandchildren," Tomes says. "My oldest granddaughter says she wants to be a psychologist."