John Damon, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of Canopy Children’s Services, leads the organization in fostering relationships with other leading health care providers, political entities, and professional thought leaders and organizations. Based in Jackson, Mississippi, Canopy provides services throughout the state, and joined Independent Sector as a member in 2020. We recently connected with Damon about Canopy’s efforts during Mental Health Awareness Month, which is in May, and throughout the year.
IS: Tell us about Canopy Children’s Solutions mission.
JD: Canopy started 109 years ago helping abandoned children who had been placed on orphan trains. From 1854 to 1929, an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children were placed throughout the United States and Canada during the Orphan Train Movement. Our work began to find permanent loving homes for kids. As society has become more complex, so have we.
Today we still are helping children thrive, although we no longer work just on adoption. We have an expanded role to address the most vexing challenges for children across Mississippi. This includes behavioral health, educational, social, and mental health challenges. A common thread of our solutions across these areas is mental health services. We were the first organization in the state to go into all counties to offer mental health services in the home, and the first to address the challenge of autism. We’re the largest provider to children and families for these services across the state in all 82 counties, and it is a significant responsibility.
Right now, on the heels of 2020, we are continuing to address mental health challenges in children by supporting teachers, administrators, students, and parents so children can thrive at home and in school. Pressing to divert kids from entering state custody is also a priority – our work supports families staying together and we have a 97% success rate on this. These interventions save the state millions of dollars and also prevent trauma in families and the personal and economic costs of children entering the foster care system.
IS: Talk about the challenges presented by the pandemic to continuing your mission, and how your organization overcame them.
JD: We had started working on offering services through telehealth before the pandemic, so when COVID hit, we were able to quickly and nimbly respond (within two weeks) to transfer 90% of our services to virtual. Some services, such as our autism services, were particularly challenging to offer virtually, but we supported families digitally in the ways we could until we could resume face-to-face services. And some of our treatment centers never stopped providing services in-person. We are so grateful to those heroic staff members.
Partnerships are critical to our work. We work very hard to build relationships at the state level as well as with community and business partners who have made it possible for us to be innovative when creating solutions for children’s mental health. We also partner with school districts to help teachers in helping students. Our partnerships with media also help us spread the word about mental health. Even our partnership with Independent Sector is critical in making sure that children’s mental health has a voice at the table. When it comes to children, we all have to be in this together.
IS: What plans do you have to recognize Mental Health Awareness Month?
JD: Each year we try to make a particular effort to ring the bell on the importance of mental health during May. This month we held our fifth annual 5K4Kids with runners, both in person and participating virtually. Mississippi’s Lieutenant Governor joined us, as well as our board members and other community supporters.
On May 5, we held our seventh annual Children’s Mental Health Summit focused on the theme of participants building a culture of dignity and hope within their organizations, with the children they serve, and in their personal lives. Building diversity and inclusion into mental health was part of the program. Our keynote speaker was Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World. The book was the basis for the movie and Broadway musical Mean Girls.
Overall, we are leveraging media to elevate the discussion of mental health this month through radio, livestreaming, television, social media, and other channels.
IS: What can other organizations and changemakers do to help shine a light on mental health?
JD: They should help in getting a message of hope out to counter hopelessness. In particular, we want to see the business world engage in this issue, and beyond just human resource departments. Chief financial officers are coming to understand more than 80% of lost productivity is not about absenteeism, but about employees being physically present, but mentally somewhere else because of the demands and stresses they are facing. By supporting employees in being happier with a more holistic approach to their health, they can be more productive. CEOs who talk about mental health from their role as leaders can decrease stigma on the topic and model positive behaviors and open communication for their staff.
IS: Thank you for all you do to help children and families in Mississippi and beyond. Is there anything you would like to add?
JD: We love our role as a nonprofit leader, but see our work as less about Canopy and more about the kids and their right to thrive. We do not want stigma around mental health to be a barrier to engaging in these important conversations or to children receiving help.
One in five children suffer from mental health challenges, but 80% never receive help. This is a crisis moment with an opportunity to close the gap on that 80% that haven’t been receiving the support they need.
A positive change that has come out of 2020 is that efforts to decrease the stigma in talking about and addressing mental health have leapfrogged by ten years. We believe that the stats can change and five out of five kids can thrive.