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"Getting personal" with Pamela Hyde

February 17, 2011
by Lori Ashcraft, PhD and William Anthony, PhD
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Director of SAMHSA discusses her past, present and future commitment to mental health

All of us can name the people who are leading or directing our nation’s behavioral healthcare programs, but what do we know about them as people, beyond a name? So often, the persons within remain anonymous to us.

Since “person first” is a key feature in the recovery movement, we thought it would be interesting to get to know one of these leaders as a person. So we are taking this opportunity to introduce you to the person who leads and directs one of our nation’s most important healthcare programs: Pamela Hyde, JD, who serves as Director of The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Editor's note: We spoke with Pam in January 2010, shortly after she was confirmed to take her position with SAMHSA. Click here to read her first published interview. Interviewing Pam for this article was an interesting and inspiring experience for us and we think you will enjoy getting to know her. Here’s her story of how she became interested in serving others at an early age, how she was drawn to focus her work in the health field, and how person-centered values have driven current SAMHSA priorities.

Q. Pam, you began your career as an attorney. How did you become interested in mental health issues? Is there a story about that or a point in time when you turned in this direction? What was the spark?

A: First of all, I’m delighted to have this opportunity to ‘get personal’ with all of you. Thank you for that.

Probably many of us start our career path before we are even conscious that we are on a path at all. Then, at some point we look back and recognize a point in time when we were drawn to something that sparked our interest and refused to let us go. This was certainly true of me. That “spark” happened to me when I was 16 years old.

I can’t remember why right now, but for some reason I signed on as a volunteer in our local hospital. They called us “candy stripers” in those days and we wore pink and white striped outfits and were assigned to various hospital wards to assist in the daily activities. Interestingly enough, I was assigned to the psychiatric unit. This was my first exposure to the heart-wrenching problems associated with mental illnesses and substance use. Much to my surprise, I knew two of the people who were locked away there.

One person I recognized on the ward was the son of one of my high school teachers; the other was a person who attended the same church I did. These were real people that I knew in a different context and I suddenly realized that any of us could become mentally ill or addicted to a life-threatening substance. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these are people like me—yet they’re here behind locked doors.’

Part of my job on the psychiatric ward was to help out with the activities—which included things like making yarn dolls and clay ashtrays. I remember wondering, ‘What purpose does making those dolls and ashtrays serve?’ These were adults and these activities didn’t seem to hold much meaning for any of them; it didn’t do much to create a sense of self-efficacy.

Seeing this through my 16-year-old eyes caused me to question, ‘What really helps people?’ This question stays with me even today as we at SAMHSA create pathways and policies to guide our nation’s behavioral health services development.

Once I graduated from high school and college, I went to law school. Private-sector law held no interest for me whatsoever, but public service seemed like a place where I could make a difference. Upon graduation, I enlisted in the domestic side of the Peace Corps, called Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA).

I was assigned to the southeastern part of Ohio, which includes part of the Appalachian Mountains. This was before federally funded legal assistance, so my job was to elicit pro bono legal services from local bar associations and private attorneys to work with people in the region who couldn’t afford help with legal matters such as divorces, custody issues and the like.

This work felt right to me. I liked helping people get the services they needed. So, once the year was over and I needed to find a job, I knew I wanted to work in the public sector. Legal Aid wasn’t hiring, but a little-known precursor to what we know now as Protection and Advocacy was, so I signed on. A main part of my job was defending people who were in state hospitals and wanted to get out. Many had been diagnosed with mental illnesses and many had substance abuse or addictive disorders as well.

It didn’t take long for me to start thinking “upstream,” looking for ways to prevent people from going to the hospital against their will in the first place. This meant we needed to have the most appropriate services available for people in our communities. I understood that there was a role for mandated services, but if we could avoid the in the first place, we could prevent a lot of grief.

The Community Services Program was a real innovation in the 80s. I was very much in favor of it because it made a range of services available in the community. It wasn’t just about treatment. It included the important elements that help people have a life — like housing, work, and natural supports. These have proven to be key ingredients for successful community living without which recovery would be very difficult for many people.

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