Facilitating, educating and advocating with passion: A look at the important work of Placer County’s Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Board

Published March 09, 2017

More than we may often realize, many of us struggle with mental health or substance abuse issues, or know someone close to us who does. Aiding community members with those struggles is important to Placer County, and we rely on our Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Board to help us really understand what the needs are. It's a great public service opportunity, but for members.... it's personal.

Among many other responsibilities, this board serves as the principal advisor to the Placer County Board of Supervisors on all matters related to mental health services in the county. The board also reviews and evaluates county services, funding, policies and procedures related to drugs, alcohol and children’s and adult services. While small, the 13-member task force has a mighty impact on Placer County, its constituents and its policies.

side by side profile pictures of Dr. Theresa Thickens and Sharon Behrens

Something that makes this board especially unique is that each of its members has a personal or professional stake in the matters on which it advises. Its members are comprised of recipients of county services, family members of recipients and professionals from around the field. As a result, “There are passionate people on the board who are looking out for a wide spectrum of concerns,” said Dr. Theresa Thickens, chair of the board and licensed clinical psychologist.

We recently had the chance to sit down with Thickens and another longtime member of the board, Sharon Behrens. The two spoke about their passions for serving Placer County and some of the incredible work they’ve been able to accomplish as board members. The two have helped facilitate communication within the community, advocated for improved systems of care and helped educate the public about the county services that are available to them.

On paper the board’s responsibilities range from advising on to assessment of county services but, when talking to the members, we found that it’s really so much more.
“We’re facilitators,” both Behrens and Thickens said. They’ve helped bridge the gap between various organizations and the county to create “rich collaboration” and open communication. 

The board recently helped create such relationships between a number of Placer County offices and the county’s school districts. After distribution of funding for mental health services in schools was transferred from the county to the schools, the board began a several-year journey of discussion, collaboration and investigation to open back up the lines of communication and re-establish trust between the institutions. “Once folks realized we’re not Placer County (we’re an advisory board) and we’re here to facilitate, we were able to bridge that gap,” Thickens said. The effort ended in the parties coming together to release a joint report on the status of mental health services in local schools.

Behrens brings a unique perspective to the board with both professional and personal experiences in child services and mental health. She has experience as a social worker, mental health counselor and child advocate and also as an adoptive and foster parent. She and her husband have adopted five children and fostered 60 special needs children in their home, including Mia who was spotlighted on an Emmy-nominated segment on NBC Nightly News with Katie Couric.

Because of her experiences, Behrens has become an advocate for matters related to child services and mental health. “I look at my daughter and the wonderful young woman she is today and I think of all of the services that she got and I think, ‘You shouldn’t have to be Bob and Sharon Behrens’ kid to get the best services’,” she explained. 

For twenty years Behrens campaigned to legislators on getting services for children who are traumatized. Again and again she was turned down. Her passion for the cause was reignited after being “blown away” by the use of a trauma-informed care program in Missouri, in which treatment was grounded in a recognition of all types of trauma, empowerment of service recipients and a comprehensive approach to prevent re-traumatization. After her visit, she decided to bring the cause to the Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Board’s attention. Within six months, the board had coordinated an 18-county convening to create a regional trauma program. “It was the right time, county and people,” Behrens described the experience. “This county, the staff and all of the agencies that brought money to the table to get this off the ground… That’s where you see collaboration, support for programs and the richness of it all.”

Another mission of the Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Board has been educating the community about the many county services that are available to them. “When we’re in the community, we’re ambassadors for providing services,” explained Behrens. 

After hosting meetings in Lincoln concerning a rise in suicides in the community, Thickens, Behrens and another member of the board realized people weren’t aware of the many crisis services available to them through Placer County. The trio worked with the board’s quality improvement committee and the Placer County Children’s System of Care to create a handout in both English and Spanish that would be easily accessible to spread the word about the county’s crisis services. They found that local police departments, fire departments, hospitals and schools were also “desperately in need” of this type of resource to hand out. After securing a $10,000 grant, they were able to print 15,000 copies and within five months, they’d all been distributed. The cards are now being printed and distributed by several outside groups. Behrens also carries them with her when she’s out in the community.

Both Behrens and Thickens have found great personal value in their work with the board. Thickens finds that her work with the board enriches her practice as a licensed clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist, and vice versa. “In my private practice, I routinely see the real world effects of the work the board has done in collaborating with the schools,” she said. “That’s the beauty of having a clinical practice. I am informed by my work on the board and the board is informed by my work out in the field with clients. So it’s really a nice balance for me and the community.”

“It’s a very supportive environment,” Behrens added. “We do so much collaboration that you learn a lot about the services that are available. It’s one thing to hear the numbers, but when you have people on the board who you see talking about their troubles, then it makes you much more passionate about listening and collaborating.”

“We are fortunate to have so many dedicated members of the Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Advisory Board, and the leadership that Sharon and Theresa have provided has really elevated the amount and breadth of work we have been able to accomplish,” said District 3 Supervisor Jim Holmes, who has also served on the board for 12 years.

While the Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Board has accomplished so much already, chair Thickens noted, “We’re very small and can’t do it all.” She encourages members of the community to attend the board’s monthly meetings to get information and also to share their own stories, concerns and ideas. The board’s monthly meetings encourage public participation. Those interested in getting more involved can also volunteer. “I’d love for people who don’t have the time to commit to board membership to work on some of our committees,” Thickens added. “In my view, volunteering is a great way to be involved in making a difference in your community and feel you’re doing your part.”

“It is really true that we are all affected by issues related to mental health, whether or not we realize it. If we don’t suffer ourselves, we know someone who does, and we are all impacted by the effects of mental illness on our society,” Holmes added.

If mental health and substance abuse challenges aren’t your passion, there are advisory committees and councils for just about any topic or area you can think of, and Placer County is constantly looking for community representatives to help our community deal with the issues you care about.

For more information about attending a meeting or volunteering, please visit the board’s website.

Learn more about other opportunities to help with the issues you care about.