Hazelden Betty Ford Appoints Dr. Joseph Lee, First Physician, Non-White, and Youngest President/CEO

By John Lavitt

February 25, 2021

Hiring from within its ranks, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation appoints Dr. Joseph Lee as the first physician and the first non-white leader of the renowned nonprofit recovery giant. An experienced addiction medicine doctor with a background in child and adolescent psychiatry, Dr. Lee’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea.

At forty-five, Dr. Lee is the youngest person to take the helm of the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of addiction and mental health care, recovery resources, and related education, prevention, research, and advocacy services. In response to the opportunity, Dr. Lee says, “I am profoundly humbled and grateful to our Board of Trustees for the honor of carrying forward Hazelden Betty Ford’s incredible legacy as a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction.”

Dr. Joseph Lee Replaces Modern Recovery Industry Icon Mark G. Mishek

Living in Minnesota’s Twin Cities with his wife and two sons, Dr. Lee will have big shoes to fill.

Over the past dozen years, retiring CEO Mark G. Mishek revolutionized the organization, taking it to the next level of influence and power. As the chief architect of the 2014 merger of the Hazelden Foundation and the Betty Ford Center, it was as if Mishek fostered the competitive impossibility in baseball of the New York Yankees merging with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Indeed, when the two most highly renowned recovery institutions in the country became one, it almost seemed unfair to the rest of the industry.

During his time leading the organization, Hazelden Betty Ford doubled the number of patients it helps annually to over 25,000. With seventeen locations nationwide and expanding telehealth solutions, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation continues to grow. Announcing his decision to retire, Mishek exclaims[JL1] , “While I’m excited about the next chapter in my life, I’m equally excited about the future of Hazelden Betty Ford and know that our mission is more important than ever before.”

As medical director for Hazelden Betty Ford’s Youth Continuum since 2010, Dr. Lee has worked closely with Mishek and is excited to continue his legacy of healthcare success. He believes that under Mishek, “Hazelden Betty Ford has evolved into a growing force within, rather than on the periphery of, healthcare—helping exponentially more people as a result.”

Empathy Defines the Value Proposition of Dr. Joseph Lee in a Tough Industry

As a Hazelden Betty Ford Trustee, Susan Ford Bales, daughter of former First Lady Betty Ford, is proud to have Dr. Lee taking the esteemed institution’s helm. Discussing his appointment, she says with conviction, “Humility, empathy, grace and love—those are the values that define Dr. Lee the most. They’re also values that were important to my mother during her 33 years of recovery… Dr. Lee is a deeply thoughtful and insightful person who understands the human condition, the needs of the human spirit, and the power of community and connection.”

As the author of Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond, Dr. Lee is nationally known for his work with teenagers. As a front-line doctor, he has seen how addiction and mental health conditions tear families apart for many years. Answering a question about the trauma behind addictive disorders from the Addiction Recovery eBulletin, Dr. Lee brings up the lasting effects of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“Most people now understand that people suffer alone and that people heal together…  Still, there is a kind of universal pain… Part of the solution is to build a network and try to engage people where they are. It’s not just meeting people where they are at from a psychological state of mind. We have to be more creative about engaging people in treatment wherever they’re at, quite literally, from a physical perspective, that’s going to involve a lot of virtual services and technological advancements.”

In other words, you have to find a way to reach people and bring them together in their microcosms, regardless of the difficulties being faced in the greater macrocosm.

Dr. Joseph Lee on the Legacy of the Pandemic in the Recovery Industry

Despite these services, Dr. Lee knows the post-pandemic challenge will be a big one. Beyond embracing diversity and focusing on inclusion, the root mental health challenges need to be addressed. Even if COVID-19 goes away as a physical health threat, becoming more like annual flu season or the common cold, the pandemic’s lasting mental health impact will remain.

Pondering this difficulty, Dr. Joseph Lee states with an undeniable passion, “On its tails, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth another pandemic—a pandemic of despair, suffering, loneliness, depression and overdoses. We’re seeing escalating needs firsthand at Hazelden Betty Ford and expect them to persist for months and possibly years to come.”

Given this ongoing crisis, Dr. Lee believes the burden of unnecessary stigma must be left behind, thus, “Investing in prevention, treatment and recovery is wise on many levels, but institutionalized stigma and discrimination still get in the way—too often leaving people with substance use and mental health disorders feeling like second-class citizens with second-class illnesses. We cannot allow that status quo to continue.”

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