What I’ve learned is you must surround yourself with people who have strengths in areas that are not your own and trust them. Learn to leverage the strength of other people to move the mission forward. It really does take a village.
As part of my series about people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lorry Leigh Belhumeur.
Dr. Leigh Belhumeur is a licensed psychologist, serving as Chief Executive Officer at Western Youth Services (WYS) for over 18 years. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from UCLA.
Under her leadership, WYS has evolved into the innovative organization that operates today. WYS annually provides integrated Mental Health Services to over 50,000 clients both directly and indirectly, with support from our collaborative partnerships.
Lorry is a seasoned community leader, an ACE Interface Master Trainer, and a fierce advocate for children, youth and families. Lorry has led the charge that reexamines mental health in the context of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and offers solutions that not only treat the predictable negative impact of ACEs but that look upstream to prevent them from happening in the first place.
She believes that the foundation of positive mental health in children and youth is having a caring dependable adult who believes in them and uncovering their strengths and using them to heal. When people are served from that perspective, they become more confident and resilient. They make progress and create and lead successful lives.
“We will move the needle from 1 in 5 children with a mental health illness, to 1 in 10 in this generation.” — Dr. Lorry Leigh Belhumeur, CEO at Western Youth Services
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
We’ll talk more about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) throughout this interview, but I grew up with a fair amount of adversity. Whether it’s more or less than others is really subjective, it was part of my upbringing and it shaped me. As a result of those experiences, I understand the effects of toxic stress and how both small and big adverse events can be carried into adulthood and into future generations. I also learned how they can be addressed in childhood and how lives can be changed. I view myself as a healer for others that have similar experiences.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
I am the CEO of Western Youth Services (WYS). We provide a full range of mental health services for children and families throughout Orange County, California. We are also a strong presence in the community shifting the perspective to redefine how mental health is viewed, how it’s defined, and we help reduce the stigma by changing the focus from mental illness to mental wellness.
Right now, one in five children have a diagnosable mental health condition. Through prevention programs we are working upstream to find the root cause of the conditions that we help heal. With the work we are doing and the data we are gathering we will change that number from one in five to one in 10 in this generation.
From our over 45 years of work in this area, we know that an adverse experience that occurs in childhood can result in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, even physical ailments later in life. When we can identify these factors in childhood and then buffer the families and the children to help them build protective factors and/or resiliency, the cycle ends and they have a better chance of living a healthy and meaningful life going forward.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
As a child, I knew that I was on earth to help people. In high school, I started thinking about being a helper, a nurse, a teacher, or something of that nature, then I gravitated toward psychology. In retrospect, I think I was trying to heal myself from my own childhood adversity. As I learned and healed, I knew that the cycle can be broken. I wanted others to have the same experience of healing. My interest expanded into wanting to break the cycle of child abuse and other kinds of adversity that children and youth face, both in the immediate and generationally. That’s the impetus for what I do and why I do it.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I am a licensed psychologist. When I was working as a clinician, I could have a private practice or work in a community mental health center with a caseload of 25 or 30 children and families that I was helping. Then I worked as a Program Director overseeing a program or clinic, overseeing hundreds of clinicians.
I had an epiphany one day, I realized that it wasn’t enough. That I could help more kids in a leadership role. Literally thousands of kids could be served and impacted in a positive way, and that doesn’t factor in the ripple effect. I was passionate to help as many kids as possible! I still am.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
When I first started in a leadership role at WYS, we were already one of the premier mental health services organizations in Orange County. We had strong referral relationships in the community and children came to us through many channels. We were known as the agency who knew how to help them get better.
When I lead my staff on a new project we start with the end game in mind, once the vision is set, we ask… in a perfect world, if failure was not an option, what would success look like? And from there we reverse engineer and plan out the strategic steps that need to happen in order to get there. My leadership style is to surround myself with people who share the vision and we work collaboratively to make it happen. Ultimately, it’s always about helping more kids.
Another strategy is to look at others who are farther up the ladder and find out how they did it so there’s no need to recreate the wheel. It’s also a great way to connect with mentors and form partnerships.
As we grew, we added advanced trainings for our employees and evidence-based practices. We were increasingly able to predict events that would result in kids needing mental health services in the first place. We would find out where and how it started and work upstream from there, get to the root cause and prevent it from happening in the first place.
Then, mental health professionals started coming to us to be trained in trauma-informed care and getting to the root-cause of the issue(s). In addition, we became ACE Interface Master Trainers and are experts in compiling data, research, and the brain science behind adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Understanding the connection between the data and the results provided the opportunity to create a common language around complex issues and extend this evidence-based knowledge to other youth serving organizations, schools, and educators. This is the most rewarding work we do, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.
I look forward to seeing how far we can go, how many children and families we can help. This is what drives me every single day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
A recent event is pretty interesting … as we are speaking about ACEs to more and more audiences of people who work with children, I noticed that many attendees have had adverse childhood experiences themselves. It’s fascinating that those who serve kids have a level of childhood adversity that mirrors the kids at risk for mental health issues. In other words, the adults in the room had higher levels of childhood adversity than the general population. Anecdotally, it’s kind of intuitive, we gravitate towards what we know. Scientifically, it also supports the data. This is knowledge we can use to help more kids.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I don’t know if it’s funny or humorous, but there was a day that I realized that I should have known this about those in helping professions.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I had mentors along the way including my second grade teacher, my sixth grade teacher, and high school teachers. These people made a significant impact in my life. They saw me in a way I could not see myself. They gave me a chance when I did not feel worthy to have one. At a young age, I realized how important this was for positive growth. Throughout my adult life I have always looked for mentors. I strive to surround myself with people who will keep me accountable and I try to be that person for others.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
This is one story that comes to mind. It was some time ago, a little girl who had experienced significant trauma in her life. She was in a foster home and had been diagnosed with selective mutism. This means that a child will not speak in certain situations and sometimes not at all, even though they know how to speak and there’s no physical reason why they are not speaking. It’s a direct result of trauma.
I remember the day she spoke to the therapist who had been very creative in her approach. She was not pressuring the child, she created a safe place for her to quietly explore. They’d gone for a walk and there were like these little honeysuckle flowers and the therapist was making the honeysuckle flower look like it was a mouth talking. When she did this the girl started to talk to the therapist. I was actually looking out of the window and I saw it happen, it was beautiful! I’ll never forget that moment.
It’s stories like these that make my heart sing. It’s what motivates me to come to work every day knowing that there are over 150 clinicians in this organization that get to have that kind of positive impact on the lives of children every day.
Here is another story, if I may… This one was about how a teacher changed the way she viewed her students and co-workers. She didn’t even realize why she was struggling with both.
I believe she was a fourth grade teacher. She was the teacher no one wanted, and this created so much negativity in her classroom.
While conducting a training with faculty, we started to discuss how to handle a behavioral situation. Instead of asking ourselves or the child ‘what’s wrong with you?’ We suggested flipping it and asking ourselves: ‘what happened to you and how can I help?’ We don’t need to know exactly what’s going on in the lives of children. But if we see kids acting out, we can assume that there’s something that it’s interfering with their ability to regulate their behavior.
This one teacher really took it to heart. This one flip of a phrase, and the science behind ACEs, shifted her mindset around how to approach her students and her co-workers, as well.
We heard back from her a year later. The kids in her class were saying things like, ‘you’re the best teacher ever’ and ‘you’re my favorite teacher.’ This is the ripple effect; you never know how one thing can make a significant change for countless people. Those students will carry this on in their families, with their friends, in their lives. It’s so simple, yet the impact is exponential. So very cool!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Mental Health is a public health crisis, as I already mentioned earlier, one in five children have a mental health concern. It is our responsibility as a society to do better for our children. When I have the opportunity to talk to people in the community and with decision makers, I get on my soapbox and share ways that we can improve the systems and resources to help the entire family. Three of these solutions are:
- Focus on prevention, this alone can help a significant amount of adverse childhood experiences from happening in the first place.
- Acknowledge that adverse childhood experiences do happen. There are children right now that have been exposed to toxic levels of stress. If we can help these kids while still in childhood, we can significantly improve their chance for a future without mental health, physical health, and behavioral concerns.
- Children that have experienced toxic stress are more likely to have problems in school. It is imperative to have the funding so we can continue to provide our prevention programs, at no cost, in schools and communities. These programs are designed to build the protective factors and the developmental assets that we know make a difference in the lives of children. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is a pediatrician, the Surgeon General for the State of California and leading the ACEs Aware movement. She is an expert in the space of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and featured in the documentary film Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope. The film explores what happens when children are exposed to multiple adverse childhood experiences and adverse community experiences or high levels of toxic stress. It also explores how to heal the wounds of toxic stress through finding the root cause of the issue, resolving it, and building resilience so as they face other obstacles in life, they know how to move through them instead of being triggered back into the cycle of stress and anxiety. Both Dr. Burke Harris and the documentary have brought this issue into the mainstream and I’m grateful for their work and their wisdom. I recommend community members learning more about ACEs and getting involved with the ACEs Aware movement.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish somebody had told me to not be so hard on myself. I’m a bit of an overachiever and in the past, I had a pattern… if I got a 99 out of 100 on a test, I focused on the one thing that I got wrong instead of being happy with a great result.
- Celebrate the little wins every step of the way. Don’t wait for the big goals. It’s much more fun.
- May sound trite, but don’t sweat the small stuff. There’s a never-ending supply of adversity and obstacles in the world. In my experience, the bigger the goal, the bigger the obstacle. Don’t let it stop you, but, let the small stuff go and save your energy for working through the bigger problems.
- If I’d known this earlier, it would have saved me time and heartache. We deserve the highest level of support possible. If your driven from your heart, there is a reason, it’s a calling and you absolutely deserve the highest level of support possible to help you change the world. The work I do is both my personal and professional mission, it’s big and I tried to do it alone. It’s not possible. Accept that you’re worth it and need help from others.
- What I’ve learned is you must surround yourself with people who have strengths in areas that are not your own and trust them. Learn to leverage the strength of other people to move the mission forward. It really does take a village.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
If you have a mission, you have a moral obligation to do it. To make the world a better place. Being of service, living out our purpose, and enlisting others in our vision are the things that bring change. It may be scary but do it anyway.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Brené Brown. She’s a trailblazer in social work, authenticity, vulnerability, and bravery. Plus, I
love data and her work is all backed by science and research. I would so love to have a conversation with her, roll up our sleeves and talk geeky mental health outcomes. Her work is shifting the planet and creating a new level of emerging leaders while upleveling those who already lead. That would be an awesome breakfast!
How can our readers follow you online?
Our website is https://westernyouthservices.org and you can connect with us on all of the social media networks (including Facebook, Linked In, Twitter and Instagram).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for the opportunity to share my stories.