Yvonnia Brown didn’t “choose” a career devoted to helping those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse – she believes it chose her.
The 42-year-old became Merced County’s newest mental health director this month. It’s a career path Brown said she fell into because of her compassion toward others, deepened by personal experience with substance abuse in her immediate family.
“I’ve been where the families are when you have a loved one that struggled with addiction and mental health issues,” Brown said. “I can empathize, and it made me more passionate for individuals. I come from a very small town, too, so it’s not just a big city issue – it hurts every area within this country.”
The South Carolina native comes from a small agricultural community, one of the many things that attracted her to Merced. Brown worked as the assistant commissioner of adult and family services at the Tennessee Department of Human Services prior to joining Merced County.
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Brown brings 20 years of experience in mental health, substance abuse and child welfare to the job. She replaces Manuel Jimenez, who retired in September after four years. Assistant County Executive Officer Scott De Moss filled in as the interim mental health director since October.
The mental health director position pays $127,545 to $155,251 per year, according to Merced County’s website.
Though she’s been on the job two weeks, Brown has started assessing the county’s Mental Health Department and its services, visiting the Los Banos site on Friday. Brown said she sees the need to expand services on the West Side of the county, which she described as impoverished and growing.
“I do see growth potential in that area,” she said. “That’s something that’s definitely on my radar to continue to assess and hopefully be able to minimize the gap in services there.”
Another thing on Brown’s radar is Merced County’s homeless population. Brown proposed collaborating with other departments and agencies to enhance services for homeless people.
“I was surprised to see the number of homeless individuals when I got here,” Brown said. “I see there is a tremendous need to address the homeless issue here in Merced, and that’s one of the things that’s very dear to me.”
Brown is also believed to be the first black female department head in Merced County. The diversity in the county’s leadership shows its progression, Brown said, applauding county leaders for stepping outside the cultural norm to hire the most qualified person for the job.
As a leader, Brown said, her philosophy boils down to three things – cohesiveness, transparency and accountability.
“I think what makes a good leader is someone who is open, honest and transparent,” she said. “Keeping lines of communication flowing in both directions – from the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top.”
It’s an approach that has already made an impression on some of Brown’s 240-plus employees.
“She really has demonstrated that ability to be a great listener,” said Curt Willems, assistant director of mental health services. “She fits in with the family already.”
Sharon Jones, Mental Health Services Act coordinator, said it was Brown’s passion for the work that stuck out to her.
“Along with passion, she brings accountability and positive outcomes,” Jones said. “She has a compassion for the homeless – giving people a second chance and putting the consumers and family members at the forefront.”
Brown said it’s too soon to identify long-term goals for the Mental Health Department, but she hopes to remove stigmas associated with mental illnesses.
“My job as a director is to help diffuse that, minimize the myth and encourage people to seek counseling and services,” Brown said. “I am truly compassionate about the work that I do and the career that was chosen for me. I’m a woman of faith, and everything I do is lined up with that.”