Clemons has been the voice for those living with mental health, addiction issues

Tom Clemons with his whiteboard of ideas behind him

By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN

BG Independent News

Tom Clemons can talk … and talk … and talk.

Most of what he talks about is pushing for mental health services for Wood County residents – and making fun of himself for talking so much.

Clemons, whose propensity for talking is well known, is retiring from his position as director of the Wood County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board next March.

“This interview could last several days,” he said with a big grin. “I go off on tangents.”

And that is an understatement.

Clemons is aware that his gift of gab is nearly legendary – so he is frequently apologizing for rambling.

“Oh my God, Tom’s at it again,” he says in his customary self-deprecating manner.

But this fall, as Clemons fine tuned his WCADAMHS levy pitch, he was able to rein it in.

“It took everything I had,” he whispered. “I can be succinct. I just don’t like being succinct.”

Behind him in the WCADAMHS conference room as he was interviewed was a white board with almost unintelligible pen scratchings. It was a visible manifestation of how Clemons’ brain works.

Far from neat and tidy, it’s how Clemons thinks. And it’s benefitted Wood County for more than 20 years.

Clemons came to the board first as associate director in 1997, then became director in 2012. Prior to that, he worked as a therapist in private practice in the Defiance area. He changed jobs to be closer to home while his and wife Karen’s children were teenagers.

“For a few years I really missed being a therapist,” he said.

“But I realized I could really affect more people and systems of care,” in his administrative position.

Clemons was drawn to psychology early in life.

“I had friends in high school who I saw become addicted to drugs and alcohol.” And he had two friends who took their lives.

His parents were a huge influence on his career path, with his father being a minister and his mother having a divinity degree and working with senior adults.

“I was raised to serve other people,” Clemons said. “I think the idea of service to others has always been ingrained in me.”

His belief system is focused on “finding ways of loving our neighbors,” and not just those geographically close.

Clemons’ gift of gab was also a trait passed down.

“Dad was a storyteller. He was famous for his long sermons,” Clemons said. “I think I come by it naturally.”

Clemons leaves the job with a lot of accomplishments to talk about. During his administration, the agency has seen improvements in crisis services, suicide prevention, opiate addiction intervention, and trauma-informed services.

He is a believer that “treatment works.”

But Clemons is most proud of his ability to get local agencies to work together to provide that treatment.

“I think the best thing I did, that I feel most proud of, is building relationships with other partners,” he said.

That often meant buying breakfast or lunch for people, “cause who wants to sit down with me,” unless a meal is in store, Clemons said in his self-deprecating manner. People are willing to enter partnerships with him, “just to get me out the door.”

The truth is, a lot of people wanted to sit down with Clemons to discuss how to improve mental health and addiction programs.

“It was clear how much he wanted agencies to partner with the ADAMHS board,” said Janelle LaFond, director of the Children’s Resource Center – one such agency. “It wasn’t always that way.”

“He is very accessible and always willing to sit down and do problem-solving,” LaFond said. “He has been very open.”

Clemons confessed that talking isn’t his only skill. He can listen, too.

“I do that pretty well,” he said. “When you talk and listen to people, and try to understand them, you can build on those community goals.”

And that’s exactly what Clemons was aiming at – to connect the community to services, whether it’s through Children Resource Center, Educational Service Center, Juvenile Court, BGSU, Harbor, or a host of other providers.

“We’re trying to reduce barriers,” he said. “We need to move beyond our own egos, and beyond our own organizations.”

One of Clemons’ recent goals was to promote the concept of trauma-based care. In layman’s terms, that means that mental health providers must realize every person’s life is affected by the past trauma they have encountered. Sometimes that trauma is carried over through generations.

“The ultimate goal is to build an entire community that’s aware of trauma,” he said. “Think about how much healthier everybody would be.”

When Clemons brought an expert in trauma-informed care to train people in Wood County, he stunned her with the breadth of his plan to make the entire community trauma-informed.

“No one’s ever wanted to look at it that broadly,” he was told.

“I’m leaving feeling ecstatic because we’re the only place in the Midwest that has taken this community-wide approach.”

Another goal throughout Clemons’ career has been the prevention of suicide. As a therapist, he worked with a prevention program, and his dad founded an organization for those who attempted suicide and survivors.

So Clemons was keenly aware that steps needed to be taken around 2005, when a series of Bowling Green students ended their own lives. The Wood County Suicide Prevention Coalition was created and shared in all local school districts.

By making it easier for suicidal youth to get help, a dramatic drop was seen in student suicides. Those numbers still remain low, though the numbers of adult suicides have seen a spike locally in recent years.

Clemons not only believes that treatment works – but also that people will reach out for treatment if its accessible. So he pushed for the 211 phone number to link people up with help for mental health and addiction problems. And recently, his office worked to provide mobile crisis responses to wherever people in need may be at the time.

“I have assisted brighter people than me to put these programs in place,” he said.

But Clemons will soon have other topics to talk about – like fly fishing, playing chess, hiking, kayaking, biking and playing guitar.

Some new tangents for Clemons to try.

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