Michelle Lemming

Michelle Lemming
Location: Denison, Texas Cohort Start Year: 2019 Project Topics: Addiction and Substance Abuse, Behavioral and Mental Health, Business/Private Sector, Communications, Community/Civic Engagement, Faith/Religion, Health Care Access, Health Care Quality, Leadership Development, Maternal and Infant Health, Public, Population and Community Health, Social Sector/Non-Profit, Violence and Trauma Populations Served: Adolescents (12-20 years), Adults (21-64 years), At-Risk/Vulnerable Populations, Children (6-11 years), Children and Families, Low-Income Communities, Military/Veterans, Native/Tribal/Indigenous People, Older Adults (65+), Rural Communities, Young Children (0-5 years)
Texoma Health Foundation

Michelle envisions a regional culture in which mental health and mental illness are freely discussed with love and support. She is working to help assure that area residents have access to effective tools to care for themselves and those around them, and know when and how to access quality behavioral health services.

Her lived experiences with mental illness and her role as CEO of a public foundation addressing high rates of anxiety, depression and suicide have fueled her passion for creating a culture of mental well-being.

Through her journey as a Culture of Health Leader, Michelle has recognized how much progress there is to be made in the field and work of philanthropy. She is listening, gathering feedback and advocating for ideas to reform and transform the way philanthropy operates. She believes it is critical that philanthropy truly listens and releases ownership to the community it serves.

Through her involvement in two statewide collaboratives focused on rural areas and mental health, she has seen firsthand through discussions, attention and increased funding that foundations serving rural communities are eager to achieve positive and lasting change. Revamping how philanthropy exists with community, and where that funding goes, can make a substantial and immediate impact across the U.S. and globe.

She is actively taking this approach with promising work being done in the region of Texoma to build a culture of mental health in schools and in the workplace to support family and neighborhoods in community—together.

Locally, she has led efforts alongside the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute and local volunteers to form rural mental health collaboratives. This has resulted in the creation of two county behavioral health leadership teams, comprised of schools, small and large businesses, law enforcement, government, places of worship, payers of care, providers of care, patients and caregivers, serving as a central hub for mental health solutions and strategies. These teams meet regularly to assure an understanding of the region’s mental health barriers and to work collectively on solutions. Shared and measurable goals include jail diversion, law enforcement training in mental health, improved access to quality services with an emphasis on improving the rural mental health workforce, decreased stigma, the promotion of early detection in partnership with Mental Health America, and the sharing of prevention tools and understanding of how to access needed services through a common directory and navigation line.

Michelle also works to foster trusted urban partnerships that can accelerate progress toward creating a regional culture of mental well-being in rural schools. Collaborative efforts with urban partners brought programs and projects into her area that would not have been available otherwise. Programs like Youth Aware of Mental Health, tele-mental health, Thrive and Hope Squad are making a measurable difference in the mental health of children.

Most exciting to Michelle is how her work with CoHL helped improve plans for the launch of Mindwell, a rural pilot to create mentally healthy and supportive workplaces. Ground work in the community that included a lot of listening helped Michelle realize how critical it is post-COVID to create nurturing workplaces for mental well-being. The workplace can open a door to parents and provide tools to talk to their children after work and can also immediately impact home and community. Stress doesn’t stop at a place of employment but most often carries into a home, a neighborhood, a community. Similarly, if we are able to improve mental well-being in the workplace, this too carries over to home and neighborhood. These grassroots efforts in school, at work and in community are transforming the region of Texoma.

STRATEGIC INITIATIVE: Catalyzing Community-identified Solutions to Rural Mental Health Needs in Bryan County, Oklahoma
Bryan County, Oklahoma, experiences more frequent mental health distress and higher rates of suicide than those of the state and nation. The county’s suicide rate is 19.4 per 100,000, compared to the national rate of 13.5, and a 2019 survey conducted by Blue Zones found that two out of every three residents reported a lack of purpose or hope. In 2018, the Choctaw Nation, First United Bank, the Oklahoma Department of Public Health, and the Texoma Health Foundation funded the first social determinants study in Oklahoma. Oklahoma State University-Center for Health Sciences researchers completed the study for rural Bryan County prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. The report is significant in that it not only confirms the population’s mental health needs, but serves as a needed tool to help influence philanthropy reform by shifting data ownership. The proposed project will a) allow the collaborative to take the first active steps toward the report’s recommendations and b) transfer ownership of the report to residents living in the target communities—a new concept for the region’s philanthropic partners. By identifying community champions in the target population and holding community forums to empower the community, the project will support true community-identified solutions to rural mental health needs.

Michelle grew up in a small East Texas community and gained a unique perspective while caring for her mother, who suffers from mental illness.

She learned intuitively as a young child to keep mental illness a secret. While she did not understand that her mother suffered from mental illness, she understood not to talk to others about what happened at home. However, despite her family’s best efforts, the illness left her and her mother living together in isolation. This time in her life would unknowingly take her through her own stages of childhood depression. Michelle was not aware of the signs and afraid to speak up, and her depression progressed to a dangerous point. Around that same time, a volunteer softball coach for the local city league began to pick her up for every practice and every game. As Michelle looks back on those years, this social connection and care was one of many critical interventions in her life that helped her to heal.

After graduating from college, her lived experience and passion for health equity found room to grow and nourish her within her career. She began her career leading the first Health Resources and Services Administration Rural Network in Louisiana where she supported providers in working collaboratively to improve equitable access to healthcare. She expanded this work statewide before accepting a position to lead the Health Services Recovery Council, formed to respond to the areas most devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Today Michelle leads one of the nation’s healthcare conversion foundations serving a predominantly rural area in North Texas and Southern Oklahoma.

While participating in the CoHL program and serving as conference chair for Texoma’s Community Behavioral Health Conference in 2021, her family received a heartbreaking call that her nephew had lost his life to mental illness. The days and months of grief that followed just reemphasized how important the tools are that she had learned to use over the years. She was able to notice when to spend extra time caring for herself and allowing herself grace to reset.

Through these lived experiences she is reminded that our lives flow effortlessly between moments of pain, grief, joy, insecurities and peace. She says that it is this understanding that brings us the unseen and known hope that allows us to know that moments of joy will too return. If we can understand how to care for ourselves; detect early; care for those around us; and receive quality, trusted behavioral healthcare, we can lessen and even prevent pain.

The foundation is creating a culture of mental well-being TOGETHER in Texoma through place-based philanthropy, grantmaking, connecting to community, and operating programs and projects with a common mission to improve the health and well-being of the foundation’s rural neighbors.

Through her work with CoHL and the Texoma Health Foundation, Michelle is passionately engaging, listening to and empowering community-owned solutions to improve the lives of her neighbors across rural areas of Texoma.

Click here to watch Michelle’s Legacy Project video.