CSBH Parent Advocates

Click on a name to learn more about each Parent Advocate:

Bonnie Cord

Linda de Sosa

Gayle Fisher

Kay York

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BONNIE CORD

    

How and when did you get involved with the School Behavioral Health Collaborative?

I went to the very first meeting, when MHA brought school districts, agencies and parents together to explain the goals of the collaborative.  I was stunned that so many school districts were involved, ten as I remembered.  I had been working with other groups for several years, including the Children’s Mental Health Action Network, Systems of Hope and NAMI education classes for parents, to get mental health education in the schools.  But there was not much success in getting the school districts involved.  When I saw MHA’s success in getting school districts to the table, I wanted to help.  I thought my perspective as a parent of child with behavioral problems which were successfully treated should be represented along with the perspectives of school professionals and mental health professionals. 

From then on, I was very happy to be part of the effort to identify what was needed and how to implement it, culminating in MHA’s report.  I was lucky to be chosen to visit the Cleveland School District to see how they had successfully brought mental health into the schools and how they funded it.  Thanks to the excellent leadership of MHA, beginning with Andrea Usanga and now with Janet Pozmantier, the initiative has been successful in promoting state legislative changes, local government changes and school district changes to facilitate getting real mental health into the schools, where the children spend most of their days.  More and more districts and groups have joined the initiative, until last year, with funds from the Houston Endowment; the effort was institutionalized in the Center for School Behavioral Health.  I am continually awed by how it has grown and how successful it has been.

Why is children’s/student mental health important to you?

Children’s mental health is important because early intervention can change the course of a child’s life for the better, which also changes the whole family’s life for the better.  With skilled intervention a child can succeed in school and with peers; families can learn how to be supportive.  NAMI’s free Basics Education for Parents of Children and Adolescents with mental health issues, taught by parents who themselves have a child with these issues, was invaluable to me in dealing with my child.

How has your participation in the collaborative impacted you?

It has increased my respect for MHA and its initiatives.  It has also given me hope and energy to promote help for children and families in the schools.

What suggestions do you have for people interested in becoming an advocate for children’s mental health?

I would love for more parents of children and adolescents struggling with behavioral health issues to become involved with the collaborative.  The parents have a lot to contribute on the practicalities of what might work.  The research shows that families have the greatest impact on the child’s prognosis.  There needs to be more effort on getting the families involved in what is happening in the schools.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I look forward to the day when NAMI’s Basics Education Class for parents of children and adolescents with behavioral health issues is taught in the schools. 

 

LINDA DE SOSA 

How and when did you get involved with the School Behavioral Health Collaborative? 

I was invited to review the initial recommendations right before their final approval with an eye to assuring suicide was included appropriately.  I found 18 places where it could be added.  I had been finding that many times when working with generic mental health organizations, suicide was not mentioned.  My theory was that it was the worst possible outcome and they didn’t want to be reminded of it.  I have been asked to speak before groups and in one case, they asked me not to use the picture of my son because that would make it “too real”.  Suicide has become more top of mind in the last few years and I was grateful that the SBHC was so welcoming to me and my ideas.

Once I joined the collaborative, I suggested to the head that we try to get a bill passed in the state mandating teacher training on suicide and mental health.  For the 2013 legislative session, she drew up the bill and found sponsors and I got a quick education on the legislative process.  I stood up to the teachers’ unions who initially opposed the bill and got them to change their minds right in the Senate hearing as, in their words, the result of the testimony before them.  The bill stalled in the House and was killed 7 times.  The head of the SBHC said, “well, that is that then” as we departed the State house and I told her that I didn’t want that to be it and asked  what would happen if I could make a phone call to one of my connected travel clients.  She told me to go for it and I did, resulting in the tortuous path toward the successful passage of SB460 on the day before the end of the session.

Why is children’s/student mental health important to you?  

Several reasons.  My oldest son, Michael, suffered from depression and died by suicide on Christmas Day in 2009.  He was 28, but as I started researching, I discovered how early suicide was happening.  It is the second leading cause of death for 10-34 year olds.  It has just surpassed auto accidents in terms of causes of death for 10-14 year olds.  I relate because I was severely bullied in elementary school and went home every night crying.  My only crime was I was too smart and was able to finish the reading projects faster than the others and be the first one to purple. =-)

Secondly, another son had severe bipolar and we had a nightmare dealing with special education in middle school and high school.  I had to literally teach myself special education law and then present to the school what they were required to do.  I had to develop the programs and do research to find out what had worked best in other cases.  He ended up dropping out at 16 and I homeschooled him for a year until I could get him turned around enough to rejoin school and graduate.  He did graduate and has also earned 2 associate degrees and currently manages an office for a company at the age of 28.  He is thriving, but it consumed all my emotions for years while we were in the middle of it.

How has your participation in the collaborative impacted you? 

It is wonderful to see the needs and perspectives of the schools and what has been and can be done to help children with the same needs as my children.  In addition, I would never have had the know-how as to how to get a bill passed and they were right by my side the whole time.  I later learned from other states that had passed the same bill that they all used lobbyists and it took an average of 3 legislative sessions.  I am glad I didn’t know that since we got it passed in the first one by ourselves.  I just knew that I was able to channel my passion for the mission and my grief for my son to save lives, as the lieutenant governor told me when he let me know it had passed.

What suggestions do you have for people interested in becoming an advocate for children’s mental health? 

Channel passion, grief and love for your children to make what you want to happen occur.  In addition, do not take no for an answer.  When advocating, remember that all the legislators have families and care about people.  We just need to make our cause the most visible.  I stood up to the teachers’ unions and I stood up to legislators.  When I was testifying, the head of a committee cut me off after 2 minutes (which was the correct time), but I responded that I had flown all the way from Houston to speak about my dead son and was he really going to cut me off after 2 minutes?  The committee heard all that I wanted to say.  I have no fear of Senators and Congressmen or Governors because they work for ME so I am very happy to stop them wherever I may see them to discuss mental health and suicide.  By using my son’s death to bring attention and make it real for them, I am helping others as well as working through my own grief.

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

I would like to let all the schools know that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has a free program called “More than Sad” for educators as well as a student edition.  We would be happy to come out to your schools to evaluate suicide policies and education.  For more information, you can email me at lindad@woodlaketravel.com.

GAYLE FISHER

How and when did you get involved with the School Behavioral Health Collaborative?

Some years ago, I met Janet at Breaking Barriers (an annual conference for learning differences and mental health awareness sponsored by Robin Rettie, M. Ed., Sp. Ed.), when I presented after Janet's session, in the same room.   Janet was so gracious and professional, and I have been following her leadership since that day. 

Why is children’s/student mental health important to you?

After years working in the field of petrochemical, upon becoming a mother and educator, my children became my biggest teachers.  I have been here (learning differences and mental health awareness) ever since, doing whatever I could (best practices), especially where there was a void (needs but not enough resources).   I find I seek to fill holes.  There are so many of you doing amazing things, and I look for the gaps.

How has your participation in the collaborative impacted you?

I have been living in the world of learning differences for 8 years now with my younger son, so I have known a long time that the work of the Collaborative was vital.  But it really hit home for me when my older child faced challenges that brought me to my knees.   (I have shared in our meetings a few specifics, and I will be glad to speak privately.)   I have peered into the abyss twice, once for each child, and will always be grateful to and humbled by the pioneers and experts who teach me and help my family.  

What suggestions do you have for people interested in becoming an advocate for children’s mental health?

For me, becoming an advocate was really just desperation to keep moving toward that light at the end of the tunnel.  I would hope for others the process could be less brutal.   For me, it was emotional survival, to help my children, to not drown, to learn what to do, to prioritize interventions, and to make it through each day.  Many a night, I would wake up hour upon hour, nearly paralyzed with fear.  As time goes by, you heal and the light becomes brighter.  I always reached toward my children, seeking peace together with them.  My faith has also been a huge help.  I don't know if this helps anyone else, but you become an advocate because you love.  

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I have been very grateful to the Collaborative and now to the Center for letting me ride along.  I am blessed to be able to help others, for in that I find peace.  Peace is so very nice.   And I look forward to amazing things we shall all do together.  I am so very lucky.

KAY YORK

A letter from Kay:

In 1980, my former husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder less than two years into our marriage. His diagnosis helped to explain some of the unusual behaviors. I quickly learned about the stigma of mental illness and that only one in three people were accurately diagnosed and receiving the proper medication. And for many years, my mental health advocacy efforts primarily focused on adults.

When the Mental Health Association discussed launching a school-based mental health collaborative in 2012, I signed up immediately. As a third generation Texas public school educator who has served in general and Special Education classrooms for 43 years, I’ve been in the trenches with thousands of students.

Parents (and in my case, spouses) may not always be the first to recognize symptomatic behaviors, especially if the child is primarily expressing the symptoms of a mental illness at school. And because these illnesses are not one-size-fits-all and are unpredictable, it is imperative for classroom teachers and other school personnel to know the signs and symptoms of mental illness and what he or she can do to help their students. Providing prevention and early intervention techniques for children and adolescents who experience devastating episodes of mental illness can help students learn how to manage their illness.

Today our young people live, work, and thrive in a new world. Social media, peer pressure, and the 24/7 news and technology cycle are not the same as our Ozzie and Harriet days of old. Unless we spend the same amount of time, energy, and funding to address the mental health needs of children and adolescents utilizing all stakeholders, it will be difficult to make significant progress. Our children and their families deserve better.

In four short years, The Center for School Behavioral Health has made significant inroads to help children become productive citizens, and our parents, teachers, and legislators more aware of the mental health needs of children and adolescents. Let’s not reinvent the wheel from school district to school district; we’re all in this together.