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Alumni Spotlights

Dr. Timothy Belavich,'92: Loving the Unlovable

  • on February 27, 2014
  • by Lisa M. McMahon, MA'09

Dr. Timothy Belavich, '92, has gone where many fear to tread ”“ into the minds of inmates at San Quentin State Prison. He never planned to work with prisoners, but an unexpected opportunity to move to California in 2001 changed all that.

Today, as statewide director of Mental Health for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Dr. Belavich oversees the mental health care provided for the approximately 35,000 inmates who are classified as mentally ill in the 34-prison system.

“It was sort of on a lark that I got involved with corrections or correctional psychology,” Dr. Belavich says. “But in retrospect, that was one of the best things that probably ever happened to me.”

Dr. Belavich's initial clinical interest was in geropsychology, a branch of psychology that seeks to address the concerns of older adults. He had graduated from Niagara with a dual major in psychology and French (the latter recommended by Sister Louise Sullivan to bolster his graduate school applications), and completed both master's and doctorate degrees at Bowling Green State University, where he specialized in clinical psychology. After an internship in health psychology at the Westside Veterans Administration in Chicago and a post doctoral fellowship in physical medicine and geropsychology at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, Dr. Belavich was working at Resurrection Health Care, Chicago's largest Catholic health care network, when the chance to relocate to California became available.

Intrigued by the idea of working with individuals with severe mental illness as a way to augment his work with the elderly, Dr. Belavich accepted an assignment as a staff psychologist at San Quentin, California's oldest state prison. He thought he'd hold that position for a year before returning to his practice in Chicago.

That expectation changed when he realized the positive influence he could have on the inmates, something brought to his attention by the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., former Niagara University president. During a celebration honoring Sister Louise's 50th Jubilee, Dr. Belavich entered into a discussion with Father Levesque about his work at the prison. Father then said something that “stuck with me,” Dr. Belavich says. “He said the work I was doing was good work, because it's very difficult to love the unlovable.

“I don't know many people who go to school thinking, ”˜I want to go work with prisoners,'” Dr. Belavich adds. “No one says ”˜I want to work with hardened criminals,' or ”˜I want to work on Death Row.' But it really helped me to understand that this was a population where I could make some type of impact because people don't necessarily want to work with them.”

So Dr. Belavich returned to San Quentin with a renewed sense of purpose. Within five years, he was appointed chief psychologist at San Quentin (the youngest at that time), before becoming chief of health care for the prison, responsible for medical, dental and nursing programs, in addition to mental health services. In 2006, he accepted a similar position at California State Prison in Los Angeles County.

Two years later, Dr. Belavich was named acting deputy director of the California Department of Corrections and the Rehabilitation Statewide Mental Health Program. He was reluctant to accept the position on a permanent basis because the job required extensive travel; he commuted weekly between his home in Los Angeles and Sacramento, and throughout the state to visit each prison. However, because of his strong belief in the department's mission and his dedication to providing services to the inmates, in December 2013, he accepted the governor's appointment.

Dr. Belavich's success comes from the values his parents taught him, particularly about acceptance of others. “If we're too busy judging someone,” he says, “we can't serve them. I don't really care what (inmates) did or how they got here. I care that they need our service and that I've been chosen to provide that service. These individuals deserve the best health care we can provide them regardless of what brought them here.”

To that end, Dr. Belavich has been working very closely with the federal courts to ensure that the prison system provides a Constitutional level of mental health care to the inmates. That hasn't always been the case, he notes, and because of this, the system has been under federal court oversight for more than 15 years. Under Dr. Belavich's leadership, progress has been made and eventually, they will be able to manage their own system.

And that's no small feat. Within the system, there are 130,000 prisoners, 35,000 of which are classified as mentally ill. Approximately 2,500 mental health staff serve this population throughout the prisons, and last January, a correctional hospital that serves as a center of treatment for between 600 and 700 mentally ill inmates was opened. “In some respects, we run one of the largest mental health hospital systems in the world,” Dr. Belavich says.

As daunting a task as that may be, the work is not without its rewards. Tim shares stories of prisoners who learned to redirect their anger from violence to art through programs sponsored by the prison, and of those who repaired broken bicycles to donate to local children's organizations. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, many donated money from their trust accounts to help the victims. “I might be an inmate, but I'm still an American,” one said.

This is what gives Dr. Belavich hope, and why he continues to serve a population others may prefer to avoid. “I took this job on a lark, and 13 years later, looking back, I wouldn't trade it for the world,” he says. “I couldn't imagine doing anything different.”