Dr. Bela Sood is a busy woman. When she’s not helping kids and parents in her role as a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Virginia Treatment Center for Children, you’ll probably find her advocating for policy change on their behalf, working to prevent violence throughout the community or pursuing one of her many hobbies.
She does it all with unmatched passion, compassion and grace, which the Virginia Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics has recognized with the 2018 Child Advocate Award. The annual award recognizes champions who, in the course of more than a year, have significantly contributed to the advancement of child health and welfare in the Commonwealth by standing up for the rights, values and recognition of Virginia’s children.
What drives Dr. Sood and how does she balance it all? We asked her!
In addition to seeing patients at VTCC, how are you involved in caring for kids in Virginia?
I love working with kids and families. In addition to the children I see in my clinic, I work with youth in the juvenile justice system. When I listen to their stories and learn how they’ve arrived where they have, it all makes sense. It informs my work with under-resourced families. There is a lot we can do to support and help them.
I also work with groups in Richmond’s East End on violence prevention and I’m in the process of getting an attachment clinic up and running. I want to help women in high-risk situations attach to their unborn babies and newborns in hopes of preventing mal-treatment down the line. We can help create change from a systems perspective by preventing trauma before it occurs. Someone has to start that dialogue and it’s a difficult one because all our resources are typically used with illness after it has developed.
How did you become involved in advocacy and policy work?
When I assumed a leadership position at VTCC many years ago, I began to see flaws in the mental health system and how they were impacting the lives of children and families. This prompted me to investigate how mental health policy decisions are made. I came to the conclusion that legislators and other leaders, although coming from a good place in their hearts, did not have technical information to make the best decisions about health care and their decisions had many unintended consequences.
From there, I became very interested in committee work around the Commonwealth, particularly in roles that could positively impact the children and families I was seeing in my practice. I also had the privilege of serving in roles that I was not only passionate about but could affect change. For instance, I was appointed by Governor Tim Kaine as the mental health expert to the blue ribbon panel that investigated the VA Tech massacre of 2007, which allowed me to see the system in a new way.
Children’s mental health has really come center stage as people recognize that one in five children has mental health needs – we can’t push this to the side. I am fascinated that having a voice in this important arena is possible, that our voices matter and I realize more and more that the only way to have this voice have meaning is to be involved. It’s all a collaborative effort, but I try hard to ensure my voice is heard. I’m very aware that I am a small cog in the larger wheel of change.
Why do you do what you do? Why are you passionate about working with and standing up for kids?
I have a very strong gene for social justice. I put my nose into things that perhaps don’t affect my life directly, but if I see things that aren’t right or that need change I’m going to jump in. That’s what makes me wake up every morning with a sense of purpose.
It’s often one step forward and two steps back and I sometimes ask myself in difficult moments, “Are you crazy?” If I can assist in making positive change, I am going to keep moving. I don’t get frustrated by failure. I don’t take it personally. Sometimes the timing isn’t right, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea and not worth pursuing.
What’s something you often tell the kids you work with?
I always like to start off conversations talking about their strengths so they can see that the discussion or negative issue doesn’t define them. For instance, a child may have behavior problems, but that doesn’t outweigh their strengths. Maybe they’re very creative, or a great friend, or an outstanding baseball player. I tell them, “You are a good person and what we are going to talk about may be painful to hear but this is a problem we are going to jointly address. I’ll help you.”
What do you want people to know about you? Who is Dr. Sood?
I have very diverse interests and I try to keep a balanced life. People ask me what I am going to do when I retire and I say, “lots of things!” My friends are very important to me. I love gardening, dancing and singing. I like listening to NPR and watching movies. I love reading. I don’t always have as much time to read as I would like, but I usually have two or three books going at the same time. I need to be intentional about making time to read to keep my soul from becoming dry through just academic work.
I believe that if you have many things going on in your life, they will only enrich you and give you greater perspective. But downtime is okay too! We all need downtime once in a while. I can be by myself for days and enjoy that too.
What’s it like to be honored with this award?
I think when you’ve spent 35 years in a particular field, you know there’s so much that goes on behind the scenes and so many change agents. I try to keep a balanced perspective about where I sit in all of it, but there is certainly joy in knowing that my work is being recognized. Receiving this honor from my physician peers is really special. Pediatricians work hand-in-hand with children and families and they realize the importance of mental health. There are so many people who are deserving of this award. They could have given it to anyone. I’m honored they chose me.