Meet David Hidalgo, new mental health chief for Multnomah County

David Hidalgo strives to make Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addiction Services Division the Second Happiest Place on Earth

David Hidalgo, MSW

David Hidalgo, MSW

Back and forth, back and forth, David Hidalgo would swim anywhere from 3,500 to 5,000 yards a day as a kid. He spent evenings, and sometimes mornings, perfecting the technique that would lead him in to winning the Montana state high school championship in the 100-meter backstroke.

But it was another passion that led the boy to stay in the pool even longer: helping others.

At 10, Hidalgo began teaching children with disabilities how to swim. He showed the children different strokes or let them adjust to the water by holding their hands and guiding them around the pool. He learned this compassion from his father, a social worker, and his mother, a nurse. It was those experiences volunteering with young people that ultimately led him to his calling and lifelong devotion to social work.

Last week, Hidalgo was named Multnomah County’s director of the Mental Health and Addiction Services Division (MHASD) after serving as the division’s interim director since August 2011. “My father was a social worker and I often visited my mom at the hospital,” Hidalgo says. “I could see how much it meant to see people getting help from my mom and I thought that was really great.”

Susan Myers, director of the Department of County Human Services, says it’s not just Hidalgo’s years of experience in social work that make him a great leader, but also his passion and heart for the division.

Hidalgo’s attitude about work stems from his swimming days. Though swimming was an individual sport, he enjoyed the team culture of supporting one another and cheering on teammates. He carries that same culture to MHASD where he emphasizes “we” not “I” and acknowledges the importance of helping clients.

Though he takes his work seriously, Hidalgo also knows how to have fun.

Hidalgo continues to swim and has developed a love of travel. One of his favorite destinations is Barcelona, but that comes a distant second to Disneyland which he has visited seven times.

“I was 7 years old when I first went to Disneyland,” Hidalgo says. “My mom had a conference in L.A. and I had no idea what I was in for.”

We sat down with Hidalgo as he shared his memories of swimming, a big-kid fascination with
Disneyland and his plans for MHASD.

Q: I was told that you really enjoy going to Disneyland.

Hidalgo: Oh, I’m a big fan of the Happiest Place on Earth.

Q: Who is your favorite character?

Hidalgo: I’m trying to think because it really is about the experience, going to the Happiest Place on Earth. But I would say as a character, Mickey Mouse is probably one of my favorite characters.

Q: What’s your favorite ride?

Hidalgo: Space Mountain. I love roller-coasters. The first time I went on it, as soon as the ride started moving, I could feel the air going over my head and I thought I was too tall for the ride.

Q: How many times have you gone to Disneyland?

Hidalgo: I think I have been to Disneyland more as an adult than I was as a child. I went once as a kid and as an adult I’ve been able to go maybe six times.

Q: Do you think people will find it amusing that a grown man – one who handles such important issues at the county – has such a fascination with Disneyland?

Hidalgo: There are a lot of great lessons to learn from Disneyland — how they run it and how they manage to pull together as a team and create the Happiest Place on Earth. Who knows, maybe the county will be the second Happiest Place on Earth.

Q: What would you say was that moment when you realized that you wanted go into social work?

Hidalgo: Going to the hospital and seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they got assistance from my

Q: What would you say is the overall goal of the Mental Health and Addiction Services Division?

Hidalgo: Transforming the healthcare system in our community.

Q: And what would be the results of that transformation?

Hidalgo: Better health and better care at a lower cost for the people, and to insure that the dollars that the Board of County Commissioners and taxpayers generously provide for us, help provide services to individuals.

Q: I read that individuals with severe mental illness die 25 years earlier than the average population.

Hidalgo: Some of the studies show that some of the reasons why they are dying are due to modifiable health risks. And some of those health risks are things we know in the general population like smoking, factors related to side effects of medication such as weight and or other cardiovascular issues. And another is suicide.

Q: That sounds like a difficult statistic to overcome.

Hidalgo: In this county, if we are able to impact the mortality rate of individuals who have severe mental illness, that would be a really big thing for us to achieve. I would like to be able to set our sights on improving that mortality rate and having a better life for people who live with severe mental

Q: What goals do you have internally now that you hold the permanent position as the director?

Hidalgo: Ensuring we have a culture of respect. That is a part of our culture in the county and the Mental Health and Addiction Services Division. Part of my goal is for people who work with the county and people who work in our division to be respected and appreciated for the work that we’re doing to improve the lives and health in our community.

Q: How do people in the county benefit from MHASD if they have neither an addiction nor a mental illness?

Hidalgo: I think there’s going to be a big payback and a big payout when we start improving the health and lives of those in our community. So that’s going to take a lot of growth and a lot of work but I believe it’s going to have big results as well.

Q: What has been one of the challenges that you have faced on the job?

Hidalgo: Continuing to provide the services we know are necessary in the community in light of having dwindling resources. The programs we’re providing either at the county or contracting them for the community are having the most impact and are the most effective use of our dollars. So I would say the funding has been a big one.

Q: How are you trying to overcome this funding issue?

Hidalgo: With the right resources we can do anything that’s necessary for the community and that is really where we are. I’m very appreciative to our Board of County Commissioners, our staff and our taxpayers because they make the decisions about funding that allow us to continue to provide services. It certainly has been a big challenge with the reductions we’ve had over the last two years.

Q: MHASD promotes a prevention and treatment process. Can you describe that?

Hidalgo: What we know is treatment works, prevention works. We have a system of services in our community that provides for early identification screening and allows people to get prevention services when needed, and we also have services afterwards such that people can get natural support and recovery services.

Q: I understand that you also have a prevention plan for suicide?

Hidalgo: We’ve had that going in our division in the last couple years. Insuring that the people in our community are getting trained to identify youth who might be at risk for suicide or other individuals. Making sure they get someone who can help and identify the issues, and getting someone the right resources.

Q: What kinds of resources does MHASD do to aid those involved in suicide?

Hidalgo: At the county we have a 24-hour crisis line that’s available to our community 365 days a year. They can call that crisis line to get help. (503-988-4888)

Q: What about young people, specifically?

Hidalgo: We have staff in our schools who can help someone right there in the schools and can start to
talk what challenges they might have and take the steps to either help resolve the situation, help
work with their family or provide access to other necessary services so the crisis and issues can
be addressed.

Q: Any last words to leave us with?

Hidalgo: I really do believe there’s a benefit to bring happiness to the workplace, and especially the
county. Whether it’s great interactions with coworkers or with the people we serve. It makes the
work go really well if there’s a chance to do it with happiness.