Q-and-A with Great Circle’s New Chief Clinical Officer
For 30 years, Dr. Michael Meehan has served children and families, working for much of that time as a psychologist and behavioral health administrator. He sees his new role at Great Circle as a continuation of his desire to “give back.”
What drew you to children’s behavioral health work?
I sometimes joke that no one becomes a child psychologist for no reason! It probably stems from somewhere in my own experience as a young person dealing with struggles.
In college, I thought I’d be a pediatrician or veterinarian, but once I’d taken a few psychology classes, I was hooked. After I graduated, my first job was at a residential facility, initially on the education side in a school like Great Circle Academy, then as a residential youth care worker. These years were formative and confirmed I was on the right career path. I went back to graduate school to earn my doctorate and take this passion further.
During my pre-doctoral internship, I had a fantastic opportunity with a children’s psychiatric hospital (Hawthorn Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in St. Louis) that had an attached residential component. Eventually, I joined the hospital full time and spent more than a decade there, first as a treating psychologist and eventually as an administrator, ultimately directing all inpatient care.
What changes have you observed during your time working in children’s behavioral health?
We’re using more evidence-based approaches. When I first started in this field, there was a great deal of well-intended, heartfelt work and a sense that if we showered kids with enough love, it would “fix” them. While love and acceptance are very important, we know these problems are incredibly complex. Now the focus is on research, science and evidence. At Great Circle, we’ve embraced trauma-informed care, which helps us determine what has caused behavioral problems and the most efficient and effective ways to treat them, all through a lens of love and compassion.
We also look at these issues through the lens of equity. We’re more aware of how systemic racism and transgenerational poverty can affect families, often creating desperation that leads to traumas and interactions with the legal and child welfare systems. The more we understand these complicated dynamics the more effective we can be in delivering an informed approach that serves our families best.
Is there a common misconception about our work you’d like to help the public better understand?
In graduate school, many of us tended to believe kids’ problems were the fault of bad parents. We thought if we took kids away from bad parents and gave them love, security and predictability, they'd be okay. But after my time in the field, I’ve seen there are very few truly mean, bad parents. There are a lot of desperate parents, a great many frightened, overwhelmed and depleted parents. There are parents dealing with generational baggage, such as unaddressed mental health needs, addiction and histories of violence and trauma. Nearly all are doing the best they can with what they have, and they feel as much commitment to their kids as I feel to mine.
Bringing a kid into the child welfare system is not the kid’s choice. They didn’t choose what happened to them, and for the most part, they had no power to prevent it. Our goal is to rebuild an infrastructure for the family so that everyone has a chance to thrive.
Why did you choose to come to Great Circle at this time?
I see my work as a calling and my new role at Great Circle as part of that. Growing up, when my dad and I would go camping, our rule was to leave our campsite and the woods better than we found them. On the last day of a trip, we made it a tradition to pick up litter. That principle, along with my faith, has fed my belief that we’re supposed to give back to the world by using our gifts to serve others.
I’d been the executive director of Good Shepherd Children & Family Services since 2012. I love the organization and its people and had no intention of leaving it. Nonetheless, after spending 90 minutes on Zoom with Dr. Paula Fleming (Great Circle’s President and CEO) and learning about her approach and Great Circle's values, I was hooked. With Great Circle’s mission and vision as our guide, we’ll help so many lives.
When I started in this field — more than 30 years ago — I wanted to make a difference one life at a time as a therapist. Now, I’m part of an organization committed to transforming families in communities throughout Missouri and Kansas. By living out our vision in a way that’s consistent with our mission, I can help change many lives for the better. That’s a worthy vocation.
About Dr. Meehan
Dr. Michael Meehan joined Great Circle in September 2020. Before becoming our Chief Clinical Officer, he spent 30 years promoting behavioral health and serving families in the St. Louis area, working in organizations such as Hawthorn Children’s Psychiatric Hospital, Epworth Children & Family Services and Good Shepherd Children & Family Services. Meehan holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology as well as master’s and bachelor’s degrees in psychology, all from Loyola University Chicago. As an adjunct instructor at Maryville University, he teaches courses in psychology.