The Junior League of Birmingham kicked off their Community Roundtable series yesterday with an important topic, mental health in our schools

Panelist Cindy Jones of PIRC with Children’s of Alabama talks to a member of the community after the Community Roundtable on Mental Health in Our Schools. Photo by Lauren Bedford for Bham Now

The Junior League of Birmingham had their first Community Roundtable yesterday, September 26.  Community Roundtables are events where members of the Birmingham community come together to discuss a particular topic. The topic is chosen by the Junior League in accordance with community members, and usually touches on something that is currently affecting the Birmingham area or its residents. Yesterday’s Roundtable was a discussion on mental health in our schools, and I was able to attend in hopes to share some of the great conversations that transpired.

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Josh Klapow, pictured here.Photo by Lauren Bedford for Bham Now

The Discussion 

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Josh Klapow Clinical Psychologist and Chief Behavioral Scientist for ChipRewards and Associate Professor of Public Health at UAB. He opened the gathering  by asking everyone in attendance to do one thing.

“I will ask you as a professional to consistently throughout today’s panel, be putting your professional hat on, and taking it off. On, and off. When we take it off, be an adult, be a parent, be a community person. It’s so easy for those of us who are in the field to only focus on the work part. We have come so far in this field, and we have so much farther to go, so it’s really important that we dig deep.”

Dr. Klapow then introduced the diverse panelists by asking them questions to get things started. He noted that the panel was extremely diverse — meaning that each person works as a mental health professional, but they all come from different backgrounds and different representations and organizations.

Panelist Jennifer McCombs, District Intervention Officer at Hoover City Schools, talks with a member of the community after the roundtable. Photo by Lauren Bedford for Bham Now

Who Were The Panelists? 

  • Mary Catherine Dunham, Alabama Area Director, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
  • Cindy Jones, Director of Psychiatric Intake Response Center (PIRC), Children’s of Alabama
  • Jennifer McCombs, District Intervention Officer, Hoover City Schools
  • Collier Tynes, Chief of Staff, Gateway

Dr. Klapow started the discussion off with this question:

“In your current position as a professional in your organization, what is the biggest challenge you see from a mental health perspective? Not for the global community, but specific to your area and what you deal with.”

Panelist Collier Tynes, Chief of Staff at Gateway, in conversation. Photo by Lauren Bedford for Bham Now

The answers ranged all over the board. Jones stated that one of the biggest challenges in her organization is that through their phone response center, they end up spending a lot of time educating parents about what they need and what their children need. The challenge here is that they end up having to explain there is not a “quick fix.” The team as PIRC is able to provide a list of professionals that can help with whatever mental health needs should be addressed. This list is available to any parent or professional who calls in.

Call the PIRC at 205-638-PIRC (7472).

McCombs recognized a few struggles. First, she shared that there is just not enough funding to help students at their moment of need. Though things can get done eventually, she lamented that it is a challenge for it to get done in a reasonable amount of time for the child. Second, the stigma surrounding mental health. At this, each panelist nodded in agreement. McCombs, who works in Hoover City Schools, noted that it’s often hard to relay a child’s needs to his or her parent. This is due in part to the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.

Panelist Mary Catherine Dunham, Alabama Area Directory at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, reads over some documents with a community member. Photo by Lauren Bedford for Bham Now

Dunham explained  that a challenge she faces at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is that they are not a direct client-service provider. This means that they must refer clients to other providers, which is hard when someone’s mental health is on the line.

Tynes touched on McCombs’ note about the stigma of mental health, but went a little bit deeper. She talked about the way we treat or talk to children who are expressing mental health needs and how to understand what they are telling us — whether verbally or not. She says, “Behind every negative behavior is an unmet need, or an inability to communicate their emotional needs.”

The Junior League of Birmingham hosts Community Roundtables throughout the year. Photo by Lauren Bedford for Bham Now

Further Discussion 

Following this initial question was a thoughtful discussion touching on many topics. The panelists discussed misperceptions of mental health issues. Some of these included the phrase, “It’s just a phase,” and parents’ hope that their kids will just “grow out of it.” Other misperceptions included the idea that not everyone needs to be aware of their mental health (everyone does!) and the idea that “getting help” often comes from a group of people, not necessarily just one doctor or counselor.

The roundtable ended with questions from the audience and a chance to walk up and meet each panelist. It was an immensely informative event and I can’t wait for the next community roundtable.

When Is The Next Junior League Community Roundtable? 

Luckily, I was able to ask Honora Gathings, a representative from the Junior League, a few questions at the end of the event.

Q: When is the next Community Roundtable?

A: The next event is tentatively scheduled for November.

Q: What will the next topic be?

A: The next topic is undecided as of now. The Junior League plans to discuss a current community topic at each roundtable. If you have any ideas for a topic to be discussed at length with the community and professionals, please reach out to the Junior League with your suggestions!

Q: How did you choose this topic for your first roundtable of the year?

A: “Our Community Roundtable are an opportunity for us to discuss topics that often hard for us to talk about. We really listened to not only our members, but also our community partners and other people in the community about what topics they want to hear about. The conversation around mental health kept coming up, and we wanted to find ways to help people learn more and also engage with community partners.

This event was important for the Greater Birmingham Community. The care with which each panelist spoke shows how our educators and community leaders are working hard to de-stigmatize mental health in our schools.