Amber McMillan, 39, Senior Director of Crisis Services, McNabb Center
Amber McMillan has touched the lives of thousands of people living with mental health and substance use disorders. She has been with the McNabb Center since 2003 and has served in many roles, from outpatient mental health services, to psychiatric rehabilitation and many others. McMillan was instrumental in starting the McNabb Center’s Military Services program, which provides mental healthcare to active and veteran service members.
You are granted one wish to change something about Knoxville, what do you choose?
I’m a social worker, so my mind constantly goes to how to improve things for people who live here, and honestly, the first thing that came to my mind was the housing market. It’s always been a problem. I mean when you look at people who are complaining about homeless camps here and homeless individuals hanging out there, I think if we could improve housing options for (homeless) individuals that it would overall just improve, Knoxville as a whole.
I would wish for more affordable housing. More income-subsidized housing. More units available that are affordable. That’s not just for, you know, people with mental health issues or substance-use issues. When you think of people who live under a certain income level, there’s just not enough housing units or housing options for those people.
There’s an unsung hero in every town. Now who is it in Knoxville and why?
I think one of the obvious ones is Yassin with Yassin’s Falafel House. I think he really just does a whole lot of good for our community. I know I just read on Facebook where he fed this family that came in, didn’t have any money, he just let them eat there, and how that inspired (a member of that family) to pay it forward when she was able to. He commented on that and just said, “Anytime you’re hungry Come here, and we’ll feed you,” so just that willingness to serve the community of Knoxville makes him truly a standout in that area.
It’s hard to believe that you’re closing in on the midpoint of your career. What achievements stand out the most?
You said midpoint of my career; I’m still young. One would be the school-based services expansion that McNabb has been a part of, putting mental health services into the school systems. It’s not obviously just Knoxville, but Knoxville is one of our largest school systems that we’re in.
School-based services are therapy, master’s-level therapy services provided in the school system. Therapists meet with children who are referred through a guidance counselor or a teacher. We meet with them, they’re at the school so it takes out barriers like transportation and missed class time.
I think this year alone just kind of speaks to the need for that with the children having been out of school for almost six months due to the pandemic. Coming back there has been a definite need for those services in the school system.
What mistake have you learned the most from?
The mistake I’ve learned the most from is passing on opportunities to share information about what I do due to my fear of public speaking. Over the years, I’ve worked hard to overcome that fear and put myself in uncomfortable positions in order to grow both personally and professionally.
What’s a talent, hobby or adventure you’ve had that no one else knows about?
I like True Crime documentaries, podcasts, all of it. I just finished “Up and Vanished” podcast season about Tara Grinstead. I watch Investigation Discovery TV a lot. I read some books occasionally, when I have time.
What was your first job?
My very first job was Burger King. When I was in high school. I worked there, my junior and senior year. I did the drive-thru. I did the front cashier. I made the food. I cleaned the restaurant. I cleaned the grease traps. It was kind of all of it.
I actually kind of enjoyed it though, but that was in high school.
If you could have any job in the world, you would be_______? (but not what you currently are)
If I could have any job in the world, my job would be a criminal profiler with the FBI. I’m one of those strange people who have always been fascinated with serial killers, with wanting to know why people do what they do.
Understanding why people make certain choices and the patterns of behavior that, could predict (murder) if you were paying attention, I’ve always wanted to do that.
What would most surprise your childhood self about you now?
I think it would surprise my childhood self that I picked up and moved from my hometown to Knoxville, knowing no one here. As a child, I was very shy. Pretty much thought where I lived was kinda the be-all end-all.
Basically, I just kind of picked up and moved down here on my own. I hit the ground running and never looked back. I don’t think that as a child, I would have seen myself having the ability and knowledge to do that, because I was so kind of shy, backwards and very family-oriented. I miss my family still. Leaving my family and everything that I had known in my childhood home isn’t something I would have expected.
What trait do you most want in a coworker?
I’ve learned through the years, the most important thing to me in a coworker is being a team player, having that willing attitude to just kind of step in and help out when needed. Because working in the mental health field, things are always different every day. You just kind of never know what your day is gonna look like.
You start with a schedule and you’re “like OK this is what I’m doing.” Then 12 things happen and that’s not what you’re doing. Being surrounded by individuals who can step in and help out, change their schedule and their day to make sure that the people who we are serving have their needs met, that’s the most important thing. That team player mentality, can-do attitude and just willingness to help out is definitely what I look for.
What is the most overrated piece of advice you’ve ever heard?
My mind keeps going to just do the best you can. I don’t think that that is always true. I think we’re all constantly learning and growing and changing every day. If you are just satisfied with, “well this is the best I can do,” you would never look for ways to be better, and do better.
I mean as bad as it sounds, “just do the best you can” is probably not the best advice to give because you can always do better.
Let’s imagine it’s Dec. 31, 2021. What was your biggest accomplishment during the year?
The position I’m currently in with McNabb is a newer position for me. I actually just took over crisis services in March, maybe a week before the pandemic hit.
I can already see that there is a lack of funding that goes into crisis services across the state and here locally. My hope is that over the next year we can find ways to increase funding for crisis services, and in turn, hopefully, expand crisis services and who we serve.
How do you want people to describe you when you’re not in the room?
I would hope people would think “She is someone who is passionate about what she does, who has found her place in the world. Her meaning in life is to help people and that’s what she does.” That’d be great.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity.