Rebecca Pittillo – Executive Director | Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas
Grief is a complex emotion that knows no timeline. While death is a natural part of life, a person dying by suicide leaves the loved ones behind grappling not only with grief but feelings of guilt, hopelessness, rage and anguish.
Rebecca Pittillo and her husband, Chad, know this pain. In October 2020, they lost their 16-year-old son to suicide. “Isaac lived a very full life in his 16 years,” Rebecca says. “He loved to travel, play guitar and write music, hang out with friends, and he was an accomplished outdoorsman.” Rebecca and Chad were blindsided by Isaac’s death, noting that they nor any of the other trusted adults and friends in his life recognized the symptoms of mental health distress.
“The signs were incredibly vague, and losing a child to suicide is the most agonizing pain and relentless suffering a person can experience,” Rebecca explains. “You not only have the literal loss of your child, but the complicated grief of the child taking their life. When the unthinkable happened, I was in complete shock and looking for answers. When we realized there were no answers to be found, we found peace in acceptance and I found purpose in the Blue & You Foundation work. Because of this work and my personal mental health struggles brought on by losing Isaac, I’ve become an advocate for mental health and behavioral healthcare. If sharing our story and working in the mental health space prevents even one more parent from experiencing what we have, it is worth every minute I spend sharing.”
Rebecca is the executive director of the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, which awards approximately $3.5 million in grants annually to support programs that help improve the health of Arkansans. Currently, the foundation’s focus is to cultivate change in the areas of behavioral health, maternal health, pediatric health and the social determinants of health.
“I joined Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield in 2018 as regional executive for South Arkansas after spending the first 21 years of my career at Jefferson Regional in Pine Bluff in several leadership positions, including the Jefferson Regional Foundation executive director,” Rebecca elaborates. “Although the Blue & You Foundation is a separate entity, it is an extension of the Arkansas Blue Cross mission to improve the health of Arkansans. In its 22 years of operation, it has awarded more than $52 million to nearly 3,000 health improvement programs reaching all 75 counties of Arkansas and nearly 300 different communities. As the needs of Arkansans change, the foundation is flexible with our funding and more focused as we best meet the needs of the people in our state.”
This year the foundation offered three grant cycles, one focusing entirely on behavioral health needs. Because there is a behavioral health crisis, there is a real need to increase access to programming and professional services. “The organization’s work to improve our state never ceases to amaze me,” Rebecca notes. “Our board of directors approved $10 million in 2019 to be dedicated to behavioral health. The pandemic hit hard, and people were suffering more than ever without the resources needed or access to mental healthcare. This foundation worked with trusted partners around the state to find solutions. The first round of large behavioral health grants was funded in 2021 with three significant areas of impact: early intervention, improving access and integration of behavioral healthcare, and normalizing the conversation on mental health. Since then, we have seen significant progress because of programs like UAMS’s ARConnect Now, Arkansas Children’s Healthy Steps, NAMI Clubs and NAMI on Campus, UAMS Trauma Resource Initiative for Schools (TRIS) and social work programs at UA Little Rock, UA Fayetteville and Arkansas State University that have integrated masters-level students into primary care clinics in their areas to provide behavioral health services.”
“We will announce another round of large behavioral health grants in October which focus on substance use disorders, suicide prevention, kids aging out of foster care and digital resources for behavioral health in Arkansas. In observance of our approaching 75th anniversary Arkansas Blue Cross is providing free Mental Health First Aid certification classes to 750 Arkansans,” Rebecca continues. “Participants learn how to recognize signs of mental health or substance use challenges, how to provide initial help and how to guide a person toward appropriate care. Topics include anxiety, depression, psychosis and addiction. A second 75th anniversary community investment is the awarding of calming rooms to 75 schools around the state. Calming rooms provide a place for students to go when they are feeling overwhelmed and need to refocus. The rooms help students regulate their emotions by providing a therapeutic environment, which allows them to enter the classroom feeling more calm, relaxed, confident and grounded.”
Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) | save.org
National Alliance on Mental Illness | nami.org/Home | Text 988 – the suicide and crisis lifeline.
America Foundation for Suicide Prevention | afsp.org
UAMS AR Connect Now | faceyourfeelings.org