Inspired by a personal tragedy that grew into a passion to raise awareness of mental health issues and suicide, Billie Jo “B.J.” Horner was recently chosen by the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities as its 2020 Advocate of the Year.
Horner is a certified prevention specialist for Maumee Valley Guidance Center and program coordinator for NAMI Four County, sharing mental health and suicide awareness programming with adults and students throughout the four-county area.
“I was happily stunned,” Horner said of learning she was the recipient of the 2020 award. “I’m incredibly humbled and appreciative.”
However, Horner said she feels undeserving of the award because of the passion she feels for her career.
“I love raising awareness,” Horner said. “My personal experiences have driven me.”
Not long after graduating from high school, Horner’s fiancé died by suicide.
“After his death I felt so isolated and became emotionally unavailable to everyone,” she said. “People just didn’t understand mental illness, depression or the trauma that I had experienced.”
With time and therapy, she came out of her darkness and decided to focus on raising awareness.
“My hope is that what I am doing now will help prevent others from going through what I went through, and that maybe someone who finds themself in the situation I was in knows how to help their loved one,” Horner said.
Horner has taught more than 1,200 adults the skills to provide mental health first aid where they work, volunteer or live whenever a colleague, student, friend or family member may be having a mental health crisis. Over the last five years, she has also presented the Signs of Suicide program to an estimated 3,500 youth through agreements with cooperating schools in Defiance, Fulton, Henry and Williams counties. Additionally, Horner has been a member of the Four County Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) team since its inception in 2015.
Horner said the programs have received positive feedback and on numerous occasions she has heard from past participants about how they were able to utilize what they learned through the programs. That feedback has ranged from individuals who were surprised at the honesty they received when they asked others about suicidal thoughts to those who reported they were able to successfully connect individuals with needed resources.
“During the class, we teach people to ask about suicidal thoughts,” Horner said. “A person took the class on a Wednesday and on Friday they called me and said, ‘I asked them about suicide and they said yes .. and now I need to know what to do.’”
Horner said the class does address what to do next, but the individual wasn’t paying full attention because she didn’t think that people would answer that question honestly.
Horner said a human resources staff member of a Henry County industry attended the class and later reached out to tell Horner they were able to connect a couple of employees with needed resources and services.
“She said, ‘I never would have reached out if I hadn’t been taught the things I learned in that class,’” Horner recounted.
Another example was a grandparent who took the class out of curiosity and realized the importance of mental health.
“She had disclosed to me that she didn’t believe in mental illness and she thought kids with problems probably all just needed spanked,” Horner said. “At the end of the class, she came up to me in tears and said, ‘I need to call my grandson and I need to let him know that I’m sorry for the horrible things I said and I want to be a part of his wellness now.’”
Horner also focuses on educational programs for students in area schools and has been able to continue those despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with most schools still allowing the in-person sessions but using the virtual option for ones she couldn’t visit.
“Our youth are speaking up and we need to listen,” Horner said, adding at a recent session she was emphasizing the importance of kids sharing when they are struggling and need help when a student pointed out that adults need to do better, too, when it comes to listening.
“That was an amazing and honest statement because too many times, since we don’t understand, we just blow off the kids and think that they are exaggerating things or that it can’t be that bad,” she said. “If our adults would listen with their kids, I think that would definitely make a difference.”
Horner was nominated for the award by Rob Giesige, chief executive officer of the Four County ADAMhs Board.
“Promoting mental health and suicide awareness is more than a job for B.J.,” Giesige said. “It’s her mission and passion.
“Through the mental health education programs that she provides for the community through Maumee Valley Guidance Center and as the program coordinator for our local NAMI affiliate, she has helped thousands of adults and students better understand why mental health is so important to everyone and provided those who have taken her programs with the knowledge and skills to save lives,” he continued.
Horner added she is grateful for the continual support of the Four County ADAMhs Board for continuing to fund prevention program, as well as NAMI Four County and other organizations that support those efforts.