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‘Bigger than myself’: Incoming Hazelden CEO takes a collective approach to recovery

In a wide-ranging and open conversation, Dr. Joseph Lee talked about his career trajectory, the importance of family connections and how it feels to be a trailblazer.

Dr. Joseph Lee
Dr. Joseph Lee: “We have — more than any other recovery organization — set the stage by talking about stigma and addiction in this country.”
Courtesy of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation

Joseph Lee, MD, doesn’t want to make the story all about himself. Though he’s achieved much in his 45 years — including recently being named the youngest person and first physician to lead the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of addiction treatment and mental health services — he’s more focused on touting the accomplishments of Mark Mischek, current Hazelden president and CEO; of his colleagues; of the $202 million organization he will lead starting June 28; and of the recovery community as a whole.

“I don’t want to focus on what I’ve done,” he told me during a recent conversation. “There are so many others who have helped me get to this point.”

Lee, who, at age 7 immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea with his parents and sister, built his medical career as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He joined Hazelden Betty Ford in 2010, as medical director for the nonprofit’s youth continuum.

While he is excited to lead Hazelden, Lee said he’s even more excited about the opportunity to join forces with other health care organizations in order to help more people discover the promise of recovery.

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“We’re one part of the larger recovery community,” he said. “We just want people to get help. Our interest is in the collective mission.”

In a wide-ranging and open conversation, Lee talked about his career trajectory, the importance of family connections and how it feels to be a trailblazer.

MinnPost: Selecting you for this leadership role marks a number of firsts for Hazelden Betty Ford. Does it signify an overall change in direction or outlook of the organization?

Joseph Lee: We have already been in a period of growth and change for a number of years. Mark took us from a mom-and-pop organization and made us an essential, mainstream health care leader. That’s been wonderful. When a lot of places in treatment were moving closer to the beach and building more swimming pools, we went in the opposite direction: We started working with insurance companies to lower cost to care.

MP: Do you think Hazelden Betty Ford leadership felt it was significant that you are a physician when they selected you for this role?

JL: If the organization didn’t believe that mental health and medical services are important for people with substance use disorder, they would have never had the insight to hire a physician CEO. A lot of places don’t have the resources to invest in a physician, but Hazelden decided to make that a priority.

MP: At 45, you are the youngest person to lead Hazelden Betty Ford. And, for the last 11 years, you’ve been Hazelden’s medical director of the youth continuum. Do you think that the selection of a younger leader signifies a renewed, organization-wide focus on serving young people?

JL: I don’t feel young on a daily basis [laughs]. I think the board and the organization are committed to broadening our banner in the future. They know that we can do even more, and that includes serving younger people. I think all of the firsts that I represent serve in that way.

MP: You are also a first-generation American, born in South Korea and naturalized as an American citizen as a young adult. What do you bring from that experience to your work at the helm of the nation’s largest nonprofit recovery organization?

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JL: I know on a personal level that the story is much bigger than me. It probably starts in my life story, with my parents. My mom sacrificed her career and worked as a housekeeper for over a decade so we could make ends meet. Later, she worked two jobs so I could get my citizenship and go to medical school. So this is not what I’ve done. This is about the people who cared for me.

This dovetails on the legacy of the organization. We have — more than any other recovery organization — set the stage by talking about stigma and addiction in this country. We have people like first lady Ford and a lot of others who came before her and championed the cause before it was a popular cause in the news.

Another legacy is thinking about my being CEO as a door open and an opportunity for seeing where we are as a society and the history of struggles and successes we have seen in this country with diversity and inclusion. Those legacies are interwoven for me and make this moment bigger than myself.

MP: Do you have a personal connection to substance use disorder? Many people in the recovery field have histories of addiction.

JL: The addiction in my family history is more distant, in my grandparents’ generation in rural Korea. The relevance to me in my life, other than the genetic stuff — I can’t say it’s a reason why I came here or worked in this area. The real story is about humanism.

When I was in residency at Duke University, I’d see people struggling with addiction in the emergency room. You’d see the stigma there in the way others viewed them or treated them or the way they viewed themselves. Then I’d see them in a substance use clinic months later in recovery and I’d see the beautiful people they really were. You don’t get to see that kind of dramatic change in people very often.

MP: Do you think that your history of working with young people will help inform your work as a leader of this nonprofit?

JL: We’re really going to focus in lots of different directions. It’s not just youth. It’s all ages. We really believe in helping families and the ecosystem in which people live. With virtual care, we’re able to extend ourselves and interact with people in the environment where they are. If you think of that as a model, think of what we can do to help family members — whether they are present in our brick-and-mortars or not.

We want to involve everyone. We have a children’s program. We have a family program. We have youth services. We are going to integrate all of those services. Recovery exists in an ecosystem. It is all interrelated. We’ve done some work with this. We’ll do even more.

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There is a participatory type of family therapy called CRAFT. It’s an approach that empowers concerned significant others or other loved ones with skills that will to help the person they are concerned about find the help they need. It helps reduce use and get the loved one into treatment. The person and their family members will be deeply involved.

MP: Most recovery organizations in the United States — including Hazelden, until your hiring — are run by white men. Is it significant that you are a person of color in this leadership role?

JL: The very first meeting I organized when I was announced as CEO-designate was with our internal diversity and inclusion and our POC groups. It was important to me that that this was the first meeting I had. The moment is much bigger than me. I want other people to know that there are open doors for them and there is opportunity for them. I want them to feel the same amount of love and to have the same kind of future and the same opportunities that I have had.

It’s not just about employees and leaders. There are intergenerational transgressions in our society. As an Asian person who honors history — that’s not lost on me. Those intergenerational transgressions require intergenerational solutions. It will not be a quick fix.

MP: Minnesota is home to some great culturally specific recovery programs, including programs like Roots Recovery and Turning Point, that look at addiction treatment from a nontraditional angle. Has Hazelden thought about offering programming specifically for communities of color?

JL: You can’t assume that people always want what we have to offer. I’ve learned a thing or two about working in various communities and I realized that those communities know what they need the best. So the question is, ‘How do you uplift those voices?” Turning Point is a great partner for us. We recognize that they do really great work. We want to support and uplift what they do the best we can.

Our organization has always spoken for marginalized people, but historically we’ve spoken for a very narrow demographic of that marginalized population. We can do better. We aspire to do better.

MP: Many people complain about the prohibitive cost of addiction treatment programs like those offered at Hazelden Betty Ford. Is your organization concerned that your prices keep people out?

JL: We’ve got to continue to make efforts to lower costs. When we work with insurance companies, a lot of the costs that people talk about are absorbed by those insurance companies. I would say that cost is an issue for all care. It is not just an addiction issue. Any kind of health issue has cost issues. The cost of recovery services gets a lot of attention, but no matter what kind of health care issue you are dealing with, there is cost involved.

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Even on the resources side there is stigma. Talk about health care costs seem to have a different lens and tenor when it comes to the cost of physical health care vs. substance-use related services. We’re really interested in breaking down the overarching stigma around substance use issues, and that includes coverage for care.

MP: How do you think that shame and stigma are reflected in addiction treatment?

JL: In most states, when families go to a hospital for physical health care, they often enter the front door of a beautiful building. But when they ask for the mental health and addiction services, they are sent to the back annex. The feeling that these families tell me they get from this experience is that they’re second-class citizens and their illness are second-class illnesses.

With COVID, even more people are falling through the cracks. There is more demand for mental health and addiction services than ever, but access to the resources and providers is more limited than ever before.

MP: Do you think that this year’s struggle with COVID-19 will have an impact on substance use disorder treatment going forward?

JL: I tend to look at things in a positive way. The silver lining of COVID is maybe how now the average American understands the impact of isolation and what suffering alone feels like. They can empathize with a person with mental health and addiction issues for the first time. This is how many of them feel all the time.

MP: Are your parents proud of what you’ve accomplished? The dream of many immigrant parents might be that their child grows up to become a physician, but you’ve focused your career in a different direction.

JL: My father has passed. So I don’t know what he would’ve thought, but something in Asian culture that’s touching is that even though my mother really sacrificed her best years to help me, she still takes complete joy in what her children have been able to do. That’s something that’s so touching for me and I don’t take for granted.

There are things as a first-generation American that I don’t take for granted. I remember the day I took my oath of citizenship. I was in North Carolina at Duke and I had to drive to a small down and take the oath. There weren’t a lot of people there. There wasn’t a big production. But that day was magical for me.

MP: What are your hopes and dreams for the future of this organization?

 JL: Change takes time. To correct a lot of things, it’s going to take, in my opinion, an intergenerational investment. Can I help to start putting those big investments in place? If I have a hand in that that would be awesome.

I have a lot of courage and excitement moving into the future, but I’m going to need a lot of people with me. It’s going to be a together thing, an intergenerational thing. Starting that path and cementing that journey is part of my role.

MP: What do you hope your legacy will be in this role?

JL: At my core, I’m a physician. I’m a healer. I can go into this work with a different attitude. I go into it with a fair amount of courage. When you think about the legacy part, a couple of slogans we’ve been using are, “Broadening our banner,” and “Meeting people where they are at,” and “Uplifting other voices.” If we can do those things, then we will have made a change and an impression in our field.