Computer science alumna problem-solves policy for children’s mental health
When Chris Bryan was working toward her degree in computer science in 1987, the major at Virginia Tech was so new that it was not housed in the College of Engineering.
And computing technology itself was so nascent, Bryan remembers having to sign up analog-style on a first-come-first-served basis to use the computer systems in order to complete her class assignments, using not a stylus, but chalk.
“Back in the day you signed up on a chalkboard for a computer, and once you scored a workstation you were on it for 9, 10, 11 hours,” she said on a recent visit to the computer science lounge in McBryde Hall. “Everybody was working to crack the same problems and that made the computer lab feel like a big think tank."
Like any think tank worth its salt, it was not unheard of to order in coffee and donuts.
The lounge is still known as an important collaboration space in the lives of computer science students (and the place that doles out doughnuts on the hour every hour on Reading Day).
Other aspects of being a woman in computing have changed, though.
Bryan's mentor at the time was the only female instructor in the department, and she spurred her on to take database management courses. While the courses were tough, those hard-won hours in the lab gave Bryan the skills she needed to problem-solve and also the interpersonal savoir-fare to work on a team.
“All the challenges the department put me through paid off when I got my first job in San Antonio. I had the confidence of a seasoned employee," said Bryan. "The first day on the job as a member of a team I had to problemsolve a database management bug. I held my own with the senior members. That was a real confidence booster and it’s something my education in database management gave me that I have carried throughout my career. To this day anyone will tell you that my strength is problem-solving.”
That ability to problemsolve algorithms has transferred to Bryan’s second career: championing awareness of children’s mental health issues.
In 1999 it became clear that her own son was struggling with issues related to mental health, and that set Bryan’s career on a different trajectory. Bryan quit her job to take care of her son full-time.
The idea of younger people grappling with mental health issues was novel in 1999, and few if any resources existed for parents.
“My husband and I realized we knew everyone in the IT field but we knew almost no one who could guide us about how to treat mental health crises in teens and young adults,” said Bryan. “As parents we don’t get trained to handle crises of mental health in our kids. You can’t see this or touch it or treat it necessarily like a bruise or a broken arm.”
As Bryan and her husband attempted to be advocates for their son and work within the school system, they found few resources available to them that functioned in an organic way for children. Most programs were adult focused and didn’t account for school days or more nuanced approaches to dealing with crises.
Eventually she found out about Clarity Child Guidance Center and began to volunteer with the organization. In volunteering, she learned about strategies to deal with the specific problems of children’s mental health that allowed kids like her son to remain close to their parents and continue to experience as close to a school routine as possible while still receiving treatment.
Clarity’s mission was, and still is, rare among children’s mental health care institutions. The organization fosters short-term intervention like crisis stabilization and observations for the first 10 or 12 hours of an incident. But they also run a day program where kids attend school and also work on coping skills throughout the day.
When Clarity decided they needed a full-time staff member to handle database management, Bryan was a logical choice.
“I had worked as a database manager, had done some work with ecommerce, and had personal experience with mental health issues and navigating the health care system, so it made sense that when Clarity had a need for someone to get their databases in order, and also fundraise, I was the first person they thought of,” she said.
In managing databases and policy for Clarity Child Guidance Center, Bryan's computer science education and problem-solving abilities once again are front and center. Bryan, who currently serves as the vice president of information technology and public policy, must use problem-solving skills on a daily basis to piece together logical ways to match public policy legislation with the digital infrastructure that currently exists.
“Public policy is far behind the network we have established for transferring information,” she said. “HIPPA laws may forbid information from being sent over one type of network and not another. My role as director for information technology is to help figure out how to bridge those gaps between where the policy and the technology don’t yet meet.”
Today, Bryan splits her time between San Antonio and Austin as an advocate for raising awareness about how parents can grapple with the challenges of dealing with children’s mental health.
And she is a proud, active Hokie with the university’s alumni association in Texas.
“I’ve always looked back fondly on my days at Virginia Tech,” she said. “Our chapter is very active because in this area we are always looking for that touchstone to stay connected to the university, no matter how far away we may be from campus.”
Indeed Bryan exemplifies the Ut Prosim edict. As a problem-solver trained in computer science, she’s capable of solving the digital conundrums of administering health care policy while using those skills to advocate for the human condition. Seeing where those paths converge has perhaps been the most important lesson of all.
Written by Amy Loeffler