Michelle Lemming of Texoma Health Foundation: “What you don’t know can help rather than hurt you”

First, what you don’t know can help rather than hurt you. I had to start from scratch when I began my career in improving communities’ access to healthcare. I had to learn the complex systems and the acronyms thrown around in meetings. What I did know from the start was how much change needed to […]

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First, what you don’t know can help rather than hurt you. I had to start from scratch when I began my career in improving communities’ access to healthcare. I had to learn the complex systems and the acronyms thrown around in meetings. What I did know from the start was how much change needed to happen. I listened, learned what had and hadn’t worked, and implemented ideas, including a few that some people said had failed miserably before. Not knowing what’s impossible has been a gift; in fact, I attribute much of my success to it, because it has freed me to try new things.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Lemming of Texoma Health Foundation.

Michelle grew up in the small East Texas town of Kilgore. Soon after graduating from the University of Louisiana, Michelle served as a young executive director leading the first rural collaborative/network funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in Louisiana. She shares that the opportunity was instrumental in her ability to identify and connect to her passions. She quickly learned the skills and power of collaborative efforts, surrounded by servant mentors and leaders. Their work in Southern Louisiana would ultimately be modeled and replicated in rural communities across the nation. Prior to serving in her current role as the founding CEO of a “new” public foundation established in 2007, she led the Health Services Recovery Council, created to move recovery efforts forward in nine rural parishes most devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Throughout her career she has maintained and implemented a continued passion for equity and developed a devotion to creating a culture of mental wellness in rural populations. She shares that Culture of Health Leaders is one of the best experiences in her career and looks forward to the continued work ahead.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Thank you so much for including me!

I grew up in a small oil town in East Texas, a daughter of educators. Involvement in sports and the love of my grandparents were both instrumental in my childhood and the trajectory of my life.

The year I graduated from college I had just had my second child and my husband got his first head coaching job in a small southern town in South Louisiana. I applied for a position that I saw in the paper. I could not find any information about the company and walked in with no understanding of what it was or why it existed. It turned out to be a position in healthcare administration. I had never thought of entering the healthcare field outside of direct patient services and would, of course, never have imagined it would connect me to my purpose and my passion in life.

The organization was created through a grant by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration Office of Rural Health Policy — this is why there are so many acronyms in healthcare. The latter was investing in rural communities across the nation to provide incentives for organizations to come together and improve access to healthcare services for their service areas. Not long after accepting the position, I was offered the Executive Director position. The backstory of this promotion is not as glamorous as it might seem. The organization was failing and the founding Executive Director had transitioned. The board gave me two options — either take the position and try to save the organization or stay in my current position as long as funds were available while I looked for another job. I took the former with a mixture of confidence in where the company could go and fear of failing to learn fast enough.

What’s most unique about my career is that the nonprofit board was the collaborative. This meant I not only reported to the board of directors, as any other nonprofit would. It also meant that since the nonprofit was also a collaborative, I needed to find ways for the CEO’s representing key collaborative organizations to collaborate in ways that measurably improved the lives of the population’s most vulnerable.

Not long after I was hired, I attended a National Association of Community Health Centers conference in New Orleans. One of the keynotes was a physician who ran a mobile unit in the D.C. area. Her presentation uncovered statistical evidence of disparities and inequities in treatment of healthcare services: If you hold factors like age, insurance, and income constant, a person of color would not receive the same level of care. As I sat and cried while listening to the rest of the presentation, I realized this was where I was meant to be. The details of that “aha!” moment remain clear to this day — the ballroom, the décor, the chair I was sitting on, and the growing sense that my life’s purpose was unfolding.

The work later expanded to new areas — to collaborative efforts among hospital CEOs across the state, and to CEOs, physicians and psychiatrists following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And even today this history of collaboration continues to shape the work of our public foundation, which facilitates and supports collaboratives to create a culture of wellbeing across and beyond the communities we serve.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

This is a hard question as my career overall has charted a unique, interesting path.

What comes to mind is the time I was asked to consult for the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — both helping rural communities across the nation — while I was also Executive Director for the healthcare organization in south Louisiana.

I loved the work, which taught me how vastly different communities could face the same roadblocks to sustained collaboration. Every community I’ve worked with has taught me something new and invaluable about how to collaborate effectively and how much we can all contribute to and learn from each other at the same time. While seemingly simple, this concept of exchange is often overlooked. Experts are brought in to help with no expectation they’ll come away having learned or benefited from the community. I attribute the success of my work today to learning the importance of this exchange early on in my career.

What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

The most important lesson from this experience: failed programs and initiatives can teach us a lot about how to ensure future programs work. Second, we can all learn and grow from the experience and passion of every person we work with. This is the foundation of my work and informs all the things I do to improve the wellbeing of a community. Collaborative efforts can build something far greater, smarter, and faster than anything one agency or individual can.

But for this to happen, you need to do two things. First, connect with people, and find out what they’re passionate about and what their projects are. This series is a good example of how to do that. Second, listen deeply. You’ll be able to connect dots and build. It is super fun work to do.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting?

Twenty years ago, I knew little to nothing about how to build trust within an organization. Back then I thought being dependable, demonstrating how hard I worked, and achieving success earned people’s trust. Over the years I’ve realized that the best way to build trust is to show authenticity and vulnerability. The culture at Texoma Health Foundation reflects the “aha” moments of our failures and successes, which have all helped us course correct and get to where we are today.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Our inner game is crucial to our effectiveness. We can’t create a culture of wellbeing without starting with ourselves. If I show up at work with stress from home I’ll make less of a positive impact or worse, make the wrong impact. Because the truth is, our work and home lives have always been enmeshed, and working remotely has only highlighted this fact. One of our cherished values is to create a healthy, happy work environment for our team to thrive and that, in turn, will enhance the health and happiness of our families. To make good on this value, we have regular check-ins to learn more and get to know each other, routinely participate in training sessions, such as emotional brain training (EBT), and read books together, among others. These efforts have not only buoyed us during a difficult year for mental health and wellbeing but improved our productivity as an organization. If our mission at Texoma Health Foundation is to help the communities we serve be their best selves, we need to ensure that we are.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I have a growing list of people I’ve connected with and learned from over the years whose help I’ll never forget.

Although in hindsight just about everyone has taught me something one way or another, the people who have done the most to help me in my youth are my grandfather and a list of teachers and coaches, all of whom helped shape who I am. Coach Petty, in particular, a volunteer parent/coach was an angel sent to my door in some of my childhood’s darkest moments. Because he never knew just how much of an influence he had on my life, I make it a point to write letters to every teacher and coach who made a positive, lasting impact on my life. It’s an investment of time that’s well worth it.

When I became an Executive Director and needed to quickly learn how to be one, Iberia Comprehensive Community Health Center CEO Roderick Campbell was one of several board members who spent long hours helping me put together and manage budgets, understand checks and balances, and how human resources worked. More recently, Kent Black, a successful CEO, and Bill Wilson, a business owner, have helped me stretch and grow professionally.

Can you share a story about that?

Following my mother’s battle with mental illness, my parents divorced. As a child, I tried to make sense of what was happening and longed to provide my mother comfort and peace in her darkest days. Looking back, I see how I moved through various stages of depression up to the point where I not only planned but actually took steps to take my own life. As with most families at that time, ours never mentioned, much less discussed, mental illness, even though family, friends, and my parents’ colleagues knew of my mother’s bouts. No one checked in to find out how we were doing, as they would have had my mother been physically rather than mentally ill.

Sports were both my outlet and refuge. I played on an all-boys soccer team in the absence of a team for girls, and I also played softball. When coaches realized had had not signed up for softball again, Coach Petty called our house to let me know he had picked me to be on his team. After that, he would pick me up for every practice and each game. Long before he was scheduled to pick me up, I would sit by the window with my glove and eagerly wait for his little car to drive up to the end of the road where our house sat. He had little or no idea what lives we led in that house. Nor did he know that each time he picked me up, he gave me hope and a sense of purpose to keep on living.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

Each day, I get to work with communities in different states to create a culture of mental health and wellbeing. Together, we help identify and address mental illness at its early stages and create safe spaces to talk about it so we can save lives and improve communities’ quality of life.

Like physical wellness, mental wellness fluctuates. There are good and bad days, and there will be times when things get progressively worse to the point that requires urgent attention. We need to acknowledge the frequency, if not inevitability, of bad days so can address them when they do come and prevent mental illness from setting in as a result of delaying needed care. Silence can turn a mental issue into a mental illness.

If we ourselves can openly discuss mental wellbeing, then we will help create the atmosphere for open communication for our families, friends, and communities.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

Most definitely!

I’m fortunate to do work that motivates and drives me. Over the years, I’ve learned that my work on the health and happiness of others can exact a toll on my own wellbeing and that I need to strike a balance.

In addition to the list below I always seek to include activity, rest and healthy food as a focus in my day as I know these are critical to overall health.

  1. First, train the mind to de-stress through emotional brain training, a method for combating stress. By staying aware of my state of mind, I’m able to recognize when I need more self-care or support, as well as when I’m mentally at my best and should therefore seize the moment.
  2. Second, practice daily meditation and breathing. Guided mediations are a wonderful way to start each day, in particular compassion meditation, a favorite of mine.
  3. Third, choose joy. As I get older, I realize how important it is to choose my surroundings. I can connect to wellbeing when I’m in a space I’ve created for me. Sometimes this means surrounding myself with things that joy; sometimes it’s recognizing what things around me bring out goosebumps or even tears.
  4. Fourth, spend time outdoors. Simply being outside to breathe in fresh air or watch the rain is part of my wellbeing practice. I can incorporate meditation by asking myself: What do I hear around me and within me? What am I thinking about? What do I see around me and inside me? When I close my eyes, what images, memories, or plans run through my mind? That’s how I make best use of external and internal senses to stay mindful.
  5. Fifth, engage in journaling, drawing, and planning. This is, by far one of my favorite activities. I’ve always had a journal for drawing new ideas for the backyard, sketching what I see around me, or jotting down ideas for a conference or initiative; my mind relaxes when I make personal or professional plans.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

To give everyone the tools to recognize their levels of stress and hope so they can detect early warning signs of mental illness and receive the care they need, as well as to change our conversations around mental illness in a way that removes the stigma.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

I have a bit of a twist on this question I would love to share.

  1. First, what you don’t know can help rather than hurt you. I had to start from scratch when I began my career in improving communities’ access to healthcare. I had to learn the complex systems and the acronyms thrown around in meetings. What I did know from the start was how much change needed to happen. I listened, learned what had and hadn’t worked, and implemented ideas, including a few that some people said had failed miserably before. Not knowing what’s impossible has been a gift; in fact, I attribute much of my success to it, because it has freed me to try new things.
  2. Second, past isn’t always prologue. When I ask for advice, I listen for ideas. People have been generous to offer success stories and cautionary tales. What I’ve learned over the past 20 years, however, is that what didn’t work before could be exactly what will meet the moment. Timing and circumstances matter.
  3. Third, it’s OK not to be OK. I lugged with me the stigma of my childhood mental health issues well into my adulthood. Without the tools to tackle the stigma, I kept my experiences under lock and key, afraid I’d make people uncomfortable, avoiding being looked down on or pitied, even though I knew some people’s childhoods were dramatically worse than mine. Discussing mental health should be just as socially acceptable as talking about the flu. We all go through stages of sadness, and it’s OK to ask for help.
  4. Fourth, your life’s purpose will keep calling until you respond. In my first position as Executive Director, I ignored an opportunity to add mental health to our work with communities. Next, the governor established the hurricane recovery board of directors and included psychiatrists and added psychiatric services to the crisis response. Then our foundation made mental health a priority in 2012, shoving me into my current path of advocating for change in our conversations around mental health. After all, to borrow a phrase from Dr. Vikram Patel, “you can’t have overall health without mental health.”
  5. Fifth, joy returns in the morning. When I look back at all the joys and pains of my life, I realize just how much my childhood experience has led to not only my purpose but also hope and resilience. In my most difficult moments, I remind myself that nothing is permanent. Neither are hard times. Just when we feel we can’t take any more, joy has a way of making an appearance.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Mental health is dear to my heart. It has become my life’s purpose to change how we talk about mental health and make it a priority for everyone. We need to be just as comfortable discussing mental health as we are chatting about baseball.

Mental health issues make a greater impact on all of us than we care to admit. The numbers are staggering. As many as one in four Americans struggle with some form of mental illness. For some perspective, Kyle Field, the largest stadium in Texas (A&M), seats 103,000. It would take roughly five Kyle Fields to hold every adult in Texas with a mental health condition. Since the pandemic, that number has more than doubled.

Oklahoma has a population of approximately 3.9 million people. Close to 5.2% of adults in Oklahoma (according to SAMHSA) live with serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. Pre-covid, it would have taken more than 3 average-sized NFL football stadiums to hold every one of those adults with serious mental health conditions. Today, it will take around 7 stadiums.

On a personal note, as I write this, I am putting together a behavioral conference for our region that creates a space for conversations, increases education about mental health and mental illness, and raises dollars for our community’s behavioral health leadership team. A few months into our planning, my husband’s sister called to tell us that our nephew committed suicide. Our hearts have been shattered and we’ve had to hold on while our grief takes over us.

We as a society can no longer afford to look away or remain silent about this issue, because it does hit home.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

@MichelleLemming — Linked-In and Twitter

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

My pleasure!

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