Policy Matters Blog

The Great Divide - Reaching Across the Aisle

Dr. Kari Oyen and her students in a photo with Governor Noem of South Dakota

Reaching across the aisle...across partisan lines, perhaps across borders, walls, or affiliations.  In this country, we have a significant divide.  Republican. Democrat. Independent. Libertarian. Tea Party. Green Party. Maybe no party at all?  This level of divisiveness makes this process of advocating for mental health feel like an uphill battle.  It can seem like you are either "with us" or "against us."  And if you are against us, then we have nothing to say to one another.    

This is the landscape that we are living in for people who care about children and issues that surround children's well-being.  We may all get behind the idea that all children would benefit from access to high-quality school-based mental health, but get overwhelmed by the political ideology that should support its efforts.  We may believe that children are underserved, underfunded, and/or underrepresented, but we do not know how to approach a remedy without isolating or only prescribing to a particular political party.  

I live in rural South Dakota.  I believe in investing in education and children's mental health.  I know that I will encounter people who do not agree with my approach to legislative priorities.  This does not mean that I stop trying.  In my most recent experience, I woke up in the wee hours of the morning and drove a 15 passenger van filled with graduate students up to our state capitol in Pierre, SD for Children's Day at the Capitol.  This day was filled with promise and possibility (And some pretty funny road trip professor jokes told by yours truly!).  Students were able to meet with local lawmakers to learn about the process of lawmaking and how a bill becomes a law. (A big thank you to all of our friends at School House Rock for teaching us the legislative process!) 

We then had the honor of meeting with our newly elected Governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem.  From the outside, one might wonder what Governor Noem and I have in common at all.  She prescribes to a fundamentally different political ideology, and from the outside, one might wonder what we would even talk about.  I, however, have found that although there are issues that we disagree on, we also have many areas in which we AGREE!  Governor Noem's priorities to address the Opioid crisis in South Dakota have a direct tie to mental health and SD children.  She also is very concerned about the shortages of school psychologists in our state and explicitly asked me about our current ratio (1:1800) and how we might work together to try to keep the graduates of our only school psychology program working in our state.  She expressed the desire to initiate grant programs to address mental health and even took the time to address each of my graduate students by name to encourage them to stay in our state as school-based mental health providers. 

As I drove back across the plains of South Dakota back to "my side" of the river, I could not help but think about how it might look if more people took the time to see beyond affiliations and political parties and instead focused on the issues that can bring us together. These compromises and bipartisanship efforts are not especially newsworthy or have the potential to go viral on social media, but might just be the thing that this country needs now more than ever. 

So I challenge you, all school-based mental health providers, to reach across the aisle and find a way to create a relationship with someone who may disagree with you.  By listening to their core messages, you might find something that this country so desperately needs....common ground.  This level of advocacy might be just the thing that helps advance our efforts and create systematic change for the students that we serve.  I look forward to continuing my conversations with Governor Noem and who knows, someday, we might be more known for the ties that bind us, than separate us.  Food for thought.   

Kari A. Oyen, PhD, LP, NCSP is an Assistant Professor of School Psychology at the University of South Dakota and the Central Region Representative for the Government Professional Relations committee for the National Association of School Psychologists.  All opinions expressed are her own.