Women United for Mental Health Advocacy

The members of Women United share a common goal: to improve their community one step at a time by focusing on national and local issues.  Their most recent meeting featured four panelists, each with a wealth of information on mental health issues affecting the youth of Central Alabama.

Members of this United Way of Central Alabama affinity group donate annually to provide individuals and families the tools they need to become financially stable, help ensure children are ready to succeed in school and offer opportunities for healthier lifestyles. Women United offers volunteer opportunities, networking events and invitations to educational sessions to find out more about key issues impacting our community.

Gus Heard-Hughes, panelist and VP of Programs for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, stressed the importance of comprehensive, effective programs to improve the emotional wellbeing of school children. “When you hear ‘mental health,’ you may think of someone with a diagnosed mental illness. That’s absolutely important in our plan, helping students with diagnosed illnesses. But what we’re really trying to do collectively is create a climate and systems of support that help every student work through the challenges of life that we all face.”

Panelists from left to right: Gus Heard-Hughes, Mary McKenzie, Dr. Shelly Mize, Leigh Cohen Long

Panelists included Heard-Hughes; Mary McKenzie, Business Development Director at Gateway; Dr. Shelly Mize, Superintendent of Tarrant City Schools; and Leigh Cohen Long, Director of Guidance for Homewood City Schools. Their varied professions and experiences shaped a progressive perspective on youth, and how a healthy emotional state in children can prevent them from stress and trauma later in life.

“Over the past few years…the number of children who have come to us with mental health issues has risen significantly,” said Mize, acknowledging the reality of the situation. “Not only has it increased significantly, we’re noticing concerns with children at much younger ages, even at kindergarten.”

With support from the Bold Goals Coalition and the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership, school districts, mental health providers, funders and others have developed a collaborative plan to build more comprehensive school mental health systems. Tarrant City, Blount County and Homewood City Schools have committed to a common plan to enhance mental health training, assessment and services over the next three years. Funding for the pilot project has been provided by the United Way of Central Alabama, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Caring Foundation.

“We’re proud to have funding from the United Way and Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, and we want to bring this programming to school systems across the state of Alabama,”said McKenzie.

“We want every child to feel success when they hit the front door of any school building,” said Cohen Long, chorusing her peers. “We’re here to guide families and educators to a positive and sustainable solution. It doesn’t matter what it takes, I’ll go open as many doors as possible!”


Are you ready to make a difference? If you’re a woman wanting to become a positive change-agent within our community, reach out to one of our Women United staff members today to get involved: