By Philip Walzer

Kurtis Hooks (M.P.H. ’05, Ph.D. ’20) knows what it’s like to suffer from a chronic disease.

Now CEO of Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center, Hooks was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was 12. He was in and out of hospitals, undergoing multiple surgeries and losing school time, until his condition stabilized when he was a college sophomore.

That experience, Hooks said, instilled a drive early on to help others. He narrowed his focus to behavioral health as a freshman at Point University, outside Atlanta. “I found Psych 101 fascinating,” Hooks, 48, said. “My in-depth exposure to the leading theorists developed an understanding of human behavior and development that continues to evolve for me.”

After receiving his master’s degree from Georgia State, Hooks got his first job at Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center in 2000 as a part-time crisis intake clinician, rising to team leader.

In 2009, he moved to Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, where he became director of behavioral health. Hooks returned to Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center in 2019 as CEO.

He saw the “symmetry” in coming back to the place where he started. More important, he was drawn to the mission of helping “take care of individuals at the worst point of their lives, keeping them safe and getting them on a long-term trajectory to help them realize a better quality of life.”

With five units and 100 beds, the psychiatric center is the largest facility for acute behavioral care for adults in South Hampton Roads and one of the biggest in Virginia. The center, which is open for admission 24 hours a day, also operates outpatient programs and employs nearly 250 people.

Old Dominion University’s Office of Counseling Services partners with Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center, referring students with acute mental health disorders for inpatient or outpatient treatment. “Ongoing collaboration is maintained throughout the students’ treatment,” said Joy Himmel, director of the office.

For Hooks, the greatest satisfaction comes from seeing patients improve, including those who did not go to the psychiatric center voluntarily. “No outcome is assured, but every single department and team member links back to providing a service that helps someone through a crisis. On the other side of that treatment are healing and connection and hope.”

He takes pride that scores on patient satisfaction surveys average 4.6 out of a possible 5 on questions including “My treatment goals and needs were met.”

But “recruiting and retaining direct-care staff has been a constant struggle,” Hooks said. One of the consequences has been “less outpatient and ancillary care resources to connect people with in the community.”

Throughout his career, Hooks has pushed to break through the boxes of healthcare.

“Behavioral health seemed siloed away in the healthcare system,” Hooks said. “People were coming into the emergency department with addiction problems, mood disorders or suicidal ideation, and the staff would seem more frustrated than concerned.”  

At Chesapeake Regional, he established a crisis intervention team, bringing together representatives of various branches of healthcare with law enforcement to try to keep people with chronic mental health issues out of jail. Hooks also helped integrate counseling services into several departments at the hospital.

Motivated to advance “a more holistic way of treating individuals,” Hooks enrolled in 2003 in a master’s program in public health jointly operated by ODU and Eastern Virginia Medical School.

“I think it worked very well being run by the two institutions,” he said. “The majority of the content came from EVMS, but I appreciated the equal quality from both sides.”  

He continued his studies in Old Dominion’s doctoral program in counseling. “From start to finish, it was a top-flight experience,” Hooks said. “I got to take classes with the professors who wrote the textbooks for them.”

Jeff Moe, interim graduate clinical coordinator for the Department of Counseling & Human Services, said Hooks was “creative and definitely wanted to master the material. He was interested in finding what works and encouraging counselors to be more innovative in how they do things.”

Moe also praised Hooks’ advocacy for behavioral healthcare across the commonwealth. “He has been appointed to several commissions by two different governors,” Moe said. “He naturally believes that is a part of his role, and he’s good at it.”

Hooks is chair of the Behavioral Health Committee of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association and is a member of the Virginia Beach 5/31 Memorial Committee and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Healthcare Committee.

An issue of particular concern to Hooks is the suicide rate among veterans, which he says is 50% higher than the overall rate. Under the federal COMPACT Act, veterans in danger of suicide can now get free care at qualified providers, including the Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center.

“I am proud to collaborate across our public and private community partners to identify and help fill gaps in mental health services for veterans and military community members,” Hooks said.

The increased focus on the issue, he said, is another example that “behavioral health has at long last found its voice after being mostly an accessory in the healthcare domain.”