For three months ten years ago during the summer of 2007, I held a position with a title that sounds sort of prestigious: acting director of the Pennsylvania CASSP* Training and Technical Assistance Institute. The reality, however, is that it was one of the hardest jobs I ever had.
Backtracking to March 2007: Shortly before Dale and I left for vacation, a friend and colleague at the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS), the entity that provided the grant to fund the training institute, informed me confidentially that there was a plan in the works to close the institute and use the funding to begin a new statewide training initiative. She further told me that while everyone else would lose their jobs, I would be able to retain a position with OMHSAS. So I left for vacation with this difficult reality hanging over my head. While I was gone, the rest of the staff was informed.
From March until June, we carried on with our regular duties, trying to remain professional even though we were all strenuously opposed to the decision to close the institute and tried to plead our case with various higher authorities. I even remember having a brief conversation at a restaurant with my state representative, who happened to be a high school classmate of mine from way back. As staff, we were particularly upset that we had no input prior to the decision, and no one had given us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and meet the desire for a new kind of training. We continued to offer statewide continuing education to children’ mental health professionals, and in April we conducted a highly successful conference (celebrating the conference’s 20th anniversary) for about 1,000 mental health professionals, child-serving system partners, youth, and family members. We also amused ourselves and relieved our stress with gallows humor that was probably not always fair to those we felt were responsible for our demise.
We were scheduled to close as of September 30, 2007, but by the end of June, our small staff of seven had shrunk to five, as two people found new jobs. One of those who left was our director, meaning that we needed someone in charge to oversee all the details associated with closing down shop after 14 years. That someone was me, likely chosen because I was continuing with OMHSAS after September 30 and I had been at institute longer than anyone else. Being acting director meant I was responsible for the following:
- Functioning as “supervisor” for colleagues whose jobs were ending with no new prospects in sight. Not surprisingly, one or two of them took advantage of unused sick days even when they likely weren’t really sick. I asked them to let me know when they wouldn’t be coming to work, but that didn’t always happen. Being put in a quasi-supervisory role while also wanting us all to continue as equal partners at the Institute created significant internal tension for me.
- Making decisions about how to dispose of everything we had produced: curriculum on a wide variety of topics (youth suicide prevention, writing effective treatment plans, writing psychological evaluations, working with children with autism, mental health and juvenile justice, etc.), a set of core competencies for children’s mental health professionals, and so on. All of a sudden all these products into which we had poured so much professional skill and emotional energy in a desire to help improve the system of care for children and adolescents and their families seemed devalued. Throwing stuff away often felt like throwing parts of ourselves away.
- Keeping track of the institute’s financial status and making sure that there would be enough money to pay all our expenses. This included staying in touch with people at Penn State’s University Park campus, which administered the grant from OMHSAS that funded the institute. (Technically, we were all Penn State employees.) Not being a finance person, my head often spun as I examined financial reports and tried to make sense of them.
- Being a member of the committee that reviewed the applications for the grant for the training institute that was going to replace us. This was perhaps one of the more bizarre duties I had. On the one hand, it made sense since I was continuing with OMHSAS and would likely be working with the new entity and I already had experience with one training institute. On the other hand, it felt like some kind of cruel and tone-deaf joke to be asked to participate in the cause of our demise. To make matters worse, one of the meetings of the committee was even held in our conference room. I pre-warned the rest of the staff so they could plan to take one of their sick days on the day of the meeting!
- Packing up a suite of offices (seven staff offices, a conference room, common areas and work space, etc.) and figuring out what to do with all our stuff. Think conference tables and chairs, multiple office desks and filing cabinets, computer equipment, book shelves and books, a significant stash of office supplies (boxes of binders, copy paper, etc.). There were only five of us to do all this packing, and we were on the third floor of an office building on Front Street in Harrisburg with a tiny and slow elevator. Besides, we continued throughout the summer with regular work in keeping with our mission. Everything ultimately belonged to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and we were bound by our lease to be out of the office suite by September 30. But how and where to move everything? I kept asking OMHSAS for direction, and I kept being put off along with vague assurances that it would all be cared for in the end. Well into September, I still didn’t know who was going to do the moving, where the stuff was going, or any specifics for how we should prepare for the move. Eventually, and just in the nick of time, arrangements were made with the PA Department of General Services to move everything to an unused building on the grounds of the former Harrisburg State Hospital.
I have no idea what ultimately happened to all that stuff. Later, after the institute closed, I went with some staff from OMHSAS to help retrieve some things for their use, and saw how the movers had just dumped everything with no attempt at any semblance of organization. At the time, I felt somewhat responsible for not having made sure the unloading happened in a more systematic way, but also frustrated because I felt like we had so little support from the powers-that-be for what seemed like an impossible task.
My anxiety level was extremely high that summer. Those three months were awful in the ways I’ve described above, plus even though I was keeping my job (unlike the other four remaining staff who would be unemployed and thus were dealing with their own stress), the contract arrangements moved slowly and I wasn’t sure until the last minute that my employment status would be uninterrupted – something critical to maintaining my health benefits. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility but very little control – a sure recipe for psychological distress. That May, I had joined Weight Watchers and managed to stay on target with my weight loss goals throughout this very stressful time. Many mornings during the summer I took a break and went for a walk alone along Front Street, mostly for the exercise that was part of my weight loss regimen but also as a stress reliever. By the end of 2007, I had achieved my weight loss goal, and I credit at least part of my success to the fact that weight loss was something I could control when I had very little control over what was happening at work.
Ten years later, I can acknowledge that there have been good developments in Pennsylvania children’s behavioral health system of care as a result of the training institute that took our place. I can also honestly say that the final eight years (five full-time, and three more in semi-retirement part-time mode) of my work with OMHSAS were good ones during which I learned much and enjoyed new professional challenges and opportunities. Yet I still remember clearly the difficulty of that summer, and I believe that the institute’s closing resulted in losses to the system and there could have been a healthier process by which the fate of the institute was decided. And I never ever want to be an acting director again.
*CASSP is an acronym for the Child and Adolescent Service System Program, envisioned in 1982 as a comprehensive system of care for children and adolescents with mental health needs and their families.