Women of Influence: Commissioner of the Alabama Dept. of Mental Health Lynn Beshear

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Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear is a force against the stigma and barriers against mental health issues few could reckon with.

Beginning her career as a nurse in the Intensive Care Nursery at Duke University Medical Center, Beshear has continued her passion for serving others throughout her entire work history. In 1978, she moved to Montgomery, Ala. and began focusing her efforts on changing the lives of those in her community. She served on numerous boards, including the Junior League Advisory Board; Helping Montgomery Families Initiative; Medical AIDS Outreach Advisory Board; the Board of Directors of Hope Inspired Ministries; and many others.

In 1999 Beshear, joined several Montgomery influencers; becoming a member of the Montgomery Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the Alabama Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Then in October of 2000, she became the only Executive Director for Envision 2020, “a community-driven strategic planning effort involving citizens and leaders in the central Alabama counties, designed to develop 25 shared goals related to the quality of life through the use of active partnerships to overcome challenges and increase opportunities,” according to the Department of Mental Health. 

Beshear held her position at Envision 2020 until July 2017 when Governor Kay Ivey appointed her as commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health. “I am honored to appoint Lynn Beshear as Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health,” Ivey said. “Through active participation in securing mental health services in the River Region, Lynn understands the complexities of the Department, and the importance of its work on behalf of the people of Alabama.”

Beshear is a woman of true passion for serving her community; an influencer and a changer of lives. She was also kind enough to answer some of Alabama Today’s questions about her life, work, and influences.

How have other women influenced your success?

My mother had three sisters and my father had two, so from my earliest memories caring women have been part of my life. My mother died just after my nineteenth birthday, meaning that, as an adult, I never knew her. But there have been and continue to be strong intelligent women from whom I learn. Indeed, all of us are role models for each other – either good ones or not. Here are a handful of my influencers:

  • My mother-in-law Mary Elizabeth lived into her 90’s, so I knew her much longer than either of my parents. She lives on in her five children and in the memories of our three children. Mary Elizabeth had unending common sense and a wonderful sense of humor.
  • My paternal grandmother lived well into her 80’s and is the only person I have known that never said one negative thing about anyone else. She would say about someone’s undesirable behavior, “We don’t know the pressures they are under”.  She came to live with my father and sister Frances (Fra), who was still in high school when our mother died. My sister still lives in North Carolina (where we are from) and is a very kind and thoughtful person. A retired teacher, she has a master’s in early childhood education and, for our children, a visit from Aunt “Fra” was a special time.
  • Another very important woman in my life was a neighbor, Jane, whom I first met while in junior high. She was ten years older than I, which is a tremendous gap when one is only 13 years old, but she was a mentor and role model that was a great stabilizing force during those awkward teen years and when my mother died.
  • I am a nurse and a large part of our faculty in nursing school were women from whom I learned the art, science and spirit of nursing, which translates into every-day living.
  • As a member of the Montgomery Junior League, I learned a tremendous amount about leadership, as well as from being in Leadership Montgomery, Leadership Alabama and on numerous boards of directors.

Not every person in a position of leadership is an effective leader, but we also learn from them what not do to, which actually is a valuable lesson. It is fair to say that every phase of my life has been blessed by strong, intelligent and caring women – and men.

What shaped your desire to work in the medical field?

As a teenager, I did a great deal of babysitting for Duke medical students and residents, as well as doing some lab work for one of them. I used to read their medical textbooks and had endless questions. I was fascinated by the workings of the human body. For a couple of summers, I was a “candy-striper” at the local community hospital.

What has been your favorite area of service, and what is your favorite thing about that position?

To answer your specific question, the most captivating part of being executive director of Envision 2020 was the exhilarating work we did to educate the River Region about Smart Growth and New Urbanism. We conducted the first Smart Growth and New Urbanism conference in 2004 and the rest, as they say, is history. Jones School of Law, through Chad Emerson, reached out to us after that initial conference to partner in those endeavors and we conducted several more conferences. The Envision 2020 modus-operandi is to educate the “correct” people and then get out of the way. And just look at the results!

I have enjoyed everything I have done – as a wife, mother, volunteer and in paid positions. It is very fortunate that I been recruited for every position. My life experiences affirm that everything we do prepares us for the next thing – and now as the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, I daily use lessons learned in all past experiences. I would not have missed a single step along the way!

What advice would you give to young women who want to pursue careers in the medical field or community leadership?

  1. Explore every opportunity that comes to you and “listen” to what excites you the most; no one can do it all
  2. Remove negative people from your life
  3. Identify the lessons learned and “file” for future use
  4. Embrace your mistakes. Never let a good one go to waste
  5. Identify the kind of life and career do you want for the long term
  6. Be flexible and persistent towards your goal(s)
  7. Learn to speak and write well; learn good table manners and how to converse effectively
  8. Be really who you are
  9. Watch, listen and learn from people currently in leadership or who are doing what you want to do
  10. “Try out” a job by doing an internship or being a volunteer for an event
  11. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it can make permanent
  12. Democracy is not an event or a spectator matter. Know the issues; question the candidates; vote
  13. Never give up

How do you spend your (rare) free time?

I like to do needlepoint and have done Christmas stockings for our three children, their three spouses and am now working on one for our fifth grandchild. I love to read and to be with friends and family (scattered from Birmingham to Denver, Seattle, Kentucky and North Carolina!), so it’s very convenient that I also enjoy travel.

Have you read any books [other than the Bible]that have shaped your perspective on life?

How to Kill 11 Million PeopleWhy the Truth Matters More than You Think by Andy Andrews. This is one of the most powerful books I have every read. It takes about one hour, but is a wise investment of time. The book title indicates 11 million because it was Hitler’s goal to kill 11 million people – predominantly Jews. This book lays out how the Nazi government pulled this off without a much rebellion by those affected. (See # 12 in the list above)

Quote: His question- how do you kill eleven million people? – is provocative, but his warning is clear: “Only a clear understanding of the answer to this question and the awareness of an involved populace can prevent history from continuing to repeat itself as it already has, time and again.” … “How do you kill eleven million people? Lie to them.”

For over 30 years of service to the communities surrounding the city of Montgomery and her determination to end the stigma and break the barriers surrounding mental health issues in the state of Alabama, Lynn Beshear is undoubtedly one of the many Alabama women of influence.

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