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bissellROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times

 

For nearly 15 years, Dr. Leslie Bissell has been a familiar face in the Liberal community.

In April 2008, she was hired as the clinical director at the Southwest Guidance Center four years prior to becoming its executive director in July 2012.

Bissell came to Liberal after getting her education and prior work experience at a few stops in the Midwest.

“I got my bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Akron in 1996,” she said. “I got both my master’s degree and my doctorate of psychology degree from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., in clinical psychology in 2003. I did my internship at Twin Valley Behavioral Health and Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. I moved to Terre Haute after that to join the community treatment team, and then I came here.”

As of Feb. 25, Bissell will no longer be a part of SWGC, as she will be joining a private practice in Northeast Kansas. Like others during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the situation gave her the opportunity for refelection, and she chose to look at what she needed to be healthy and the best person she could be.

“In that process, I’ve come to realize my heart needs to see people grow and change in one-on-one fashion again,” she said. “I’ve been in administrative work most of my professional career. While I have very much enjoyed doing that level of work, my heart really wants to be a clinician again.”

So Bissell will now be relocating to Manhattan to join a private practice there as a psychologist, which she said will allow her to continue seeing clients in her office and watch them grow and change. She said her interest in psychology came about mostly from her own lived experiences.

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“When I was in high school, I had a fear of talking to boys, and at the same time, my pastor who my mother was working for, was going back to school to get his master’s degree in counseling,” she said. “He needed someone to practice on.”

Bissell was volunteered to help the pastor practice his skills, and she said through that process, she was able to better handle talking to boys and be active in high school.

“Because of that lived experience, I was able to see how much you can really impact a person’s life,” she said. “That’s what led me down that trail.”

In addition to her work with SWGC, Bissell has likewise done much in the way of volunteer work with organizations such as the Liberal Rotary Club and the Cimarron River Valley Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also served on the deacon board and as a member of the worship team at New Beginnings Church, and until recently, she had served as the vice president of the Liberal Area Coalition for Families and on the board of International Pancake Day.

Bissell said her love for volunteer work always goes back to serving the community.

“One of the mottos of the Liberal Rotary Club is ‘Service Above Self,’” she said. “It’s about how to you give back to your community, how do you engage and get to know your neighbors and get to know the people you live with so you can better understand how to serve them. That’s why I enjoy doing the volunteer part of what I do.”

Bissell said she has a similar philosophy when it comes to her professional work.

“My ultimate goal is to help people become the best they can be and to achieve whatever goals they want to achieve,” she said. “That’s by using psychotherapy or in this case helping my staff have the resources and tools they need to be able to do that. That makes my coming to work every day very meaningful.”

During Bissell’s time at SWGC, the center shifted from a primarily paper-based system to electronic medical records, which she considers a significant move, along with other innovations.

“We also have started using televideo more often,” she said. “We’ve installed three televideo suites here at the main office, and we also hired an additional advance practice registered nurse. Because of that, we’re also able to provide televideo services to assist our community mental health center for medication management. We’re diversifying our ability to access a lot of resource streams in that way.”

SWGC also has new programs for mental health education such as Mental Health First Aid and suicide prevention like the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, also known as ASIST.

“We’ve partnered with various school districts around the Yellow Ribbon program, which is another suicide prevention model geared specifically for teenagers,” she said. “We have implemented Mental Health Awareness Month during the month of May, and as part of it the last three years, we have established our Mental Health Awareness Champion awards we give out to our community partners every year to thank them for the work they do to help those in need of mental health services. We’ve also remodeled our main office. We just recently remodeled our Robin King center as well.”

Near the beginning of Bissell’s time as director, Southwest Medical Center closed the doors to its psych unit, creating an increasing gap in the need for mental healthcare in the community. Bissell said since then, both local and statewide, accessing higher needs of care has been and is still challenging.

“Thankfully, there is a unit up at St. Catherine’s Hospital for adults now,” she said. “Especially for children, it’s still difficult to find inpatient hospitalization. Also across the state, the number of PRTF, Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility, beds decreased over the last several years. Unfortunately, there is a higher need than the number of beds available at this time. We continue to partner pretty closely with Larned State Hospital for getting people the level of care they need. Unfortunately right now in the midst of the COVID situation as it is, Larned State Hospital is also having to reduce the number of beds available, which has put a much heavier strain on our local hospitals and in some counties the police departments. They help keep people safe until a bed is available for someone to go on an involuntary basis to Larned State Hospital.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has created difficulties for many, Bissell said it has been a growth opportunity for the center in many ways.

“As the result of being eligible for a lot of grants through different organizations because of COVID, we’ve been able to make our entire workforce, except for maybe a couple of key positions, to where everyone can pretty much do their work remotely at this point,” she said. “We also able to meet people where they are. If people need to stay at home, they can still meet with their clinician by televideo, and that has helped tremendously because we know a lot of people need that consistent support from someone they trust. Being able to do that has helped us be able to stabilize some of our higher need consumers, but it’s also give us a way to expand to reach needs of other people who, maybe prior to COVID, might not have thought they needed mental health services. Now they’re able to access that more easily, and quite frankly by the nature of the COVID pandemic and how it has isolated us as a community, we are noticing trends throughout mental healthcare of the need for mental health services increasing, especially the longer the pandemic continues. I would anticipate the need will continue to increase in the years to come.”

Helping with the load created by the loss of the psych unit is private practices in Liberal, and Bissell said it is always good for a community to have choice for a provider.

“I know Seward County in particular is still designated as an underserved population, meaning we don’t have enough providers to meet the need of the community,” she said. “That’s why partnering with our community partners, our private practitioners, is important. The one way our center is different than someone in private practice is we’re able to provide a wider range of types of services to folks than a private practitioner is able to. Often what happens is folks with more intense needs tend to come our way, where folks with more stage of life kinds of issues might be more likely to seek out a private practitioner instead.” 

Bissell said too, with the loss of the psych unit, SWGC had some outpatient providers who could provide medication management.

“That was more of the load shift around that particular service,” she said. “The number of private providers has been pretty stable over the last several years. It’s always good to have a variety of people so people can choose who they have the best clinical fit with.”

Bissell’s replacement at SWGC has already been found in one of its current employees.

“Marshall Lewis, my clinical director, has been named by my board as my successor,” she said. “He’ll be taking over duties as executive director effective Feb. 28. Marshall’s been with the agency for about 10 years, and he has been in community mental health for over 30 years. I’m very confident he is going to be able to lead this agency in the years to come to address the unique challenges he’s going to have to face.”