In Memory: Betty Shirley, beloved mental health care advocate

May 1, 2023

Betty Shirley believed that mental health issues would become more prevalent over time, and she recognized early on the positive impact that educating primary care physicians in the provision of mental health care could have on people struggling with these challenges.

“I believe that diseases of behavior will dominate the 21st Century, whether these be depressive and anxiety disorders, an explosion of causes and manifestations or post-traumatic stress disorder, lifestyle behavior problems such as obesity and substance abuse, or a general increase in stress and violence,” Shirley said.

“As teachers who focus on primary care physicians, rather than specialists in psychiatry, we have an important opportunity to bring a high level of expertise into general medical practice, where the vast majority of mental health problems are initially treated.”

Shirley made the comments in 2002, the year the College of Community Health Sciences at The University of Alabama broke ground on a new building that would house its academic medicine programs for medical students and primary care resident physicians, as well as its clinical training site, University Medical Center.

Shirley played a key role, through her time and generous support, in the realization not only of the new building but in working with the College to ensure that behavioral health was integrated into the care provided at UMC and integral in the education and training of primary care physicians at CCHS.

When construction was completed and the new building opened, UMC’s behavioral medicine clinic was named in her honor – the Betty Shirley Clinic for Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.

Shirley passed away April 6, 2023, at the age of 95.

“Betty Shirley was truly a great advocate for mental health care and a great partner with CCHS and UMC,” said Dr. Richard Friend, dean of the College. “She will be missed.”

Friend praised Shirley’s lifelong dedication as an advocate for mental health care and said her partnership with CCHS has been instrumental in UMC’s ability to grow and support the mental health care services it now provides to the Tuscaloosa and UA campus communities.

Shirley was born in 1927 in Montgomery, Ala. She graduated from UA and devoted her life to service and addressing mental health concerns at the community level.

In addition to mental health care, she was also an advocate for children and young adults with disabilities. She was a leading supporter of the RISE Center, located on the UA campus and that predominantly serves young children with disabilities. She was also a supporter of the UA Crossing Points program for young adults with intellectual disabilities interested in pursuing postsecondary education at UA.

Shirley was a lifetime member of the board of directors of the Mental Health Association of Tuscaloosa County, and she served as a member of the DCH Foundation Ball when its proceeds were used for a psychiatric unit at DCH Regional Medical Center.

In 1991, then President George H.W. Bush honored Shirley as one of 1,000 Points of Light Across America, a prestigious distinction given to citizens working to better their communities through volunteer work.