Morning Zen

A Champion for Childrens Mental Health at SAMHSA Moves On – His Leadership Will Be Missed

August 11, 2019

It has been a little over a month since I got the call from Gary Blau, Chief, Child, Adolescent, and Family Branch, at SAMHSA. “Hey Scott, I have some exciting news. I have accepted a position as Executive Director for the Hackett Center for Mental Health. I’m movin’ to Houston!”

The excitement in his voice was infectious. This new job presents an excellent opportunity for him to take the policy skills he has honed over the past 25 years in state and federal government, and apply them in a new venture. The opportunity to lead a community-based effort to transform mental health systems in Texas is a perfect fit for Gary.

After the celebratory call, I hung up the phone and decided to write a post for the Network website announcing this news. Gary is one of a few individuals who have played a significant role in my development as an advocate. I was excited to share my appreciation for him and the work that he has done at SAMHSA.

I stared at the computer, and no words would come. My fingers would not work. I was unable to type a single sentence. What was the heck with the writer’s block? The task was simple. Write an announcement about Gary leaving SAMHSA to take a fantastic position in Houston, Texas. No big deal, right? Oh man, so much to say about what he meant to me and the children’s mental health movement while in his role as federal overseer of the Child Mental Health Initiative.

Another week passed, and then another, and another, and another. Friday Update, the weekly update that I write highlighting developments in children’s mental health research, policy, and practice, came to a screeching halt. The pathway from my brain to my computer was blocked. Those of you who have experienced writer’s block know the feeling. It sucks. The ideas are there, but the paralysis is overwhelming.

In the six weeks since Gary called me, much has happened in our nation that has a significant impact on the lives of children and families. The increasing separation of children and parents in the madness surrounding the immigration debate, mass shootings, and the growing vitriol (as if it could get any higher) spewed by political leaders and pundits alike, are exhausting to the soul, and have become the new normal.

So what does this have to do with Gary? This post is supposed to be congratulatory, not a tell-all about my writer’s block and advocacy exhaustion at the numbing pace of assaults on the senses. But, as many Network readers know, I tend not to do things the easy way.

The news of Gary’s departure got mixed into the soup that is sloshing around in my brain as I try to figure out how we keep children’s mental health advocates going in these tumultuous times. And, candidly, I think I have been mourning the loss of an essential system of care advocate within the walls of SAMHSA. So, yes, I am thrilled for Gary’s new position. The state of Texas should be equally excited. But make no mistake – we will miss the strong voice that he has given to children’s mental health within the federal government. After Gary departs, it is not unreasonable to think that SAMHSA may reorganize the Child, Adolescent, and Family Branch, as they have done with other departments in the organization. Should they consolidate staff within another department, the internal voice advocating for children’s mental health will be diminished.

Now, more than ever, we need a strong champion for children’s mental health at the federal level. We need more “Gary’s” in the federal government, and I worry about who, if anyone, will step up to fill Gary’s shoes.

Fortunately, Gary is leaving some solid examples of what good leadership looks like – something sorely needed throughout the halls of SAMHSA. I hope that whoever replaces him will take a few notes about his style and how he has been able to consistently inspire system of care grant communities to keep at the work of developing innovations in research, policy, and practice on behalf of children and adolescents with mental health challenges and their families.

So What Makes a Good Leader?
There are countless books on leadership, and I tend not to get wrapped up in any of them. For me, it is the visceral reaction and a few key indicators that I rely on to base my assessment of an individuals leadership abilities. Are they able to laugh at themselves? Are they able to keep their ego in check in a position of power? Importantly, if their ego starts ballooning to the point where it won’t fit through the doorway, do they surround themselves with a few key people who have permission to speak the truth, even when the news is bad? Are they continually evaluating their performance, their message, with the expressed understanding that their job as a leader is to improve continuously? Are they focused on inspiring others to achieve excellence? Are they inclusive? Do they question established norms, recognizing that opportunities for improvement could be hiding in plain site? Can they deliver bad news in a way that helps the recipient maintain a sense of dignity? I’ve got a much longer checklist, but you get the idea. Gary actively put into practice these indicators and more while at SAMHSA. I am confident he will do the same in his role with the Hackett Center.

Memorable, Fun, and Informative
I first met Gary in 2004. He was new on the job at SAMHSA, and we scheduled a ‘getting acquainted’ meeting soon after he began working in his new position. By 2004, I had been working on SAMHSA related activities for many years, assisting with speech writing for the former head of the Child, Adolescent and Family Branch, and conducting assessment visits at grant sites around the country. At our meeting, Gary asked me to continue with the work I had been doing for the Branch. He said that he was particularly interested in collaborating with me on ways to make his ideas (of which he had many) come alive in his speeches. He wanted to find a way for grantees to be able to grab on to concepts and ideas and be able to apply them in their everyday work. Gary wanted his speeches to be memorable, fun, and informative.

Pushing the Envelope
As a federal official, Gary would have to walk the tightrope of supporting grantees in their efforts while at the same time ensuring that grantees were following federal guidelines. In those early days, he talked to me a lot about the need to help grantees see the importance of embracing the concept of a system of care approach and apply it in their work.

My job was to listen to his ideas and think of creative ways for him to express them. I would bring back ideas, and we would weed through them, throwing out the outlandish ideas and keeping the rest. And then the fun would begin. The ideas that made the first rough cut would be refined and developed to be consistent with his written comments so that in the end, the imagery in the powerpoint slides would help convey and support the words that he spoke.

Think about this for a minute. Gary encouraged me to think beyond traditional boundaries and challenge him to make his message clearer and sharper. That’s leadership.

The Ability to Find Humor Within
One of my favorite examples of Gary’s willingness to use humor and make fun of himself to get a point across was a speech he gave at a System of Care grantee meeting discussing the importance of completing an evaluation instrument that no one particularly enjoyed doing.

At that time, there was a popular commercial that used the tagline “So simple; even a caveman can do it.” We superimposed his face over the caveman’s and changed the slogan to “So simple; even a Fed can do it.”

In this one slide, Gary brought home the point he was making through humor directed at himself and his position, referencing subtly the annoyance that many grantees have about federal requirements, yet making the point that the task could be achieved.

Celebrating the Excellence of Others
In another speech, Gary wanted to reinforce the incredible work being done by grantees day in and day out. At the time, the movie ‘The Incredibles’ was playing in theaters nationwide and was quite popular. We superimposed headshots of one of the grant teams at the conference with the ‘Incredibles’ movie characters and included it in the powerpoint slides.

As Gary was talking about the hard work grantees were doing in communities, he mentioned this particular team and then showed the slide. It was a hit!

Gary did this type of recognition and public affirmation of grantees often, continually thinking of ways to give credit to and inspire the people at the community level who were doing the heavy lifting with the system of care grants.

Breaking Down Complex Ideas Into Manageable Parts
Gary was adamant that we find ways to break down complex ideas into useful and applicable guidance for system of care grantees. Whether it was the Transformation Equation, Transformation Star, or a logic model for his office to help ensure they gave a unified message to the grant communities, Gary was continually pushing a message of clarity around the work of the Child Mental Health Initiative and the work of the Child, Adolescent and Family Branch at SAMHSA. And while these visual devices were popular, Gary didn’t rest on the laurels of any of them to convey conceptual frameworks. He has a good eye for knowing when it is time to evolve and come up with a newer, fresher way of explaining bedrock principles and values in ways that people can apply to their work.

Conceptualizing New Initiatives and Bringing Them to Fruition
One of the joys of working with Gary over an extended period was that I got to witness how ideas for the creation of new initiatives would evolve in his head. The Building Bridges Initiative is a good example. Over a year or so, as we would be discussing upcoming speeches, Gary kept coming back to the challenge of getting residential care providers and system of care providers to talk with each other. Over the years, the challenge of inappropriate residential care placements has been on ongoing sore topic with system of care providers. Meaningful dialogue between the two camps was not happening. I will never forget the day that Gary said to me during a meeting, “I’m gonna do it. I’m going to say at this upcoming meeting of residential care providers that we have got to start communicating with each other. We have got to figure out how to build bridges between residential care and systems of care.” And at that moment, the Building Bridges Initiative was born. The Initiative  wasn’t fleshed out in any significant way at the time, but it became a talking point in Gary’s speeches and evolved into the Building Bridges Initiative that is in operation today.

Gary took a similar approach with creating a stronger presence of youth voice. As with the Building Bridges Initiative, for months, he would talk about needing to figure out a way to get more authentic youth voice involved with systems of care. Talk moved from meetings over the phone to proclamations at national conferences that youth voice needed a higher prominence than it was being afforded. And today, system of care communities have access to an independent youth-driven organization (Youth M.O.V.E. National) to help ensure youth voice in their grant activities.

These are just two of many examples of how Gary would take an idea, nourish it, flesh it out, seek feedback and input, and then bring to fruition. That’s leadership.

Respecting and Supporting Those Who Take Divergent Paths
Probably nearest and dearest to my heart about Gary has been the evolution of our working relationship. We started with me, in effect, working for him. For years, I supported the efforts of the Branch and the Child Mental Health Initiative as a sub-contractor for the technical assistance component of the grant program. But around 2010, things began to change for me. As the concept behind what would eventually become the Children’s Mental Health Network took shape, I knew that I could no longer accept money from federal government contracts affiliated with SAMHSA. If the Network was to speak freely (both positive and negative) about federal government efforts to improve services and supports for children and adolescents with mental health challenges and their families, then we needed to be completely independent of federal funding. No monetary strings attached means you can say what needs to be said 100% of the time.

Both Gary and I knew that this decision would change our relationship significantly. I was moving into a position of advocate, sometimes disagreeing strongly with decisions made at his level, and more often, above his level. Consequently, as the Network developed and moved away from federal contracts, our time together decreased significantly. This change also meant no more assistance with formulating concepts for his speeches or new initiatives and no more federal site visits to grant programs.

The positions the federal government takes on specific issues related to children’s mental health infuriates me sometimes. I have a laundry list of challenges associated with Building Bridges, support for family and youth initiatives, and more. What I appreciate most about Gary is that even though I am so much more vocal about my critique of SAMHSA as an advocate, the level of respect between us remains unchanged. And that is how a working relationship between a federal government official who shows strong leadership skills and an advocate should be – respect, a willingness to listen, and a commitment to dialogue.

To Gary, I say good luck, my friend. Your contribution to the sustainability of the systems of care movement is more significant than you ever may realize.

To SAMHSA, I say, do your homework on your next hire. Try to find someone who embodies just a fraction of the characteristics Gary brought to the table. Heck, while you are at it, spread some of that positive leadership juju around the rest of the organization. Trust me; you will be glad you did.

If you have a message or reflection to share about Gary and his time at SAMHSA, join the conversation at the bottom of this page!

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About the Author

Scott Bryant-Comstock

My passion is helping to shape policy and practice in children’s mental health. For the past 40 years, my journey as a mental health advocate has traveled from volunteering at a suicide and crisis center, professional roles as a therapist in an outpatient clinic, in-home family therapist, state mental health official, Board Chair for a county mental health program, and national reviewer of children’s mental health systems reform efforts. As the founder of the Children’s Mental Health Network (2009), I lead the Network’s efforts to grow a national online forum for the exchange of ideas on how to continually improve children’s mental health research, policy and practice.

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