Big Ideas: “The stigma about receiving mental health services would vanish if we dramatically increase the pool of people getting help, ” with Debra Anderson, MSW, PhD

“No child should have to get hurt to get help” As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Debra Anderson. Debra Anderson, MSW, PhD, is a Senior Director at Project Harmony Child Advocacy Center. She oversees four program areas: the […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

“No child should have to get hurt to get help”

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Debra Anderson. Debra Anderson, MSW, PhD, is a Senior Director at Project Harmony Child Advocacy Center. She oversees four program areas: the Connections program, a mental health program dedicated to early intervention services for children; the Training institute; Human Resources; and Research/Data. Connections increases access to mental health services for children and families; provides evidence based training and support for mental health professionals, and increases community capacity in serving children and families. The Training Institute provides education about child abuse and neglect topics, and the staff train over 14,000 people each year. Dr. Anderson has presented at regional, national, and international conferences, including the San Diego International Child Abuse and Neglect Conference, Protect our Children, National Children’s Alliance, and the National Children’s Advocacy Conference. She has 30 years of experience training and consulting to public and private child welfare agencies. Prior to Project Harmony, Dr. Anderson was a professor of social work at Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always knew I wanted to work in the helping professions. My dad was a funeral director and my mom a nurse so helping others was a value instilled in my brothers and me at an early age. However, finding my way to social work and specifically to child welfare was not a straight path. I tried 5 different majors in college before I accidentally landed in social work, and when I finally took an introductory course, I knew it was the right path for me. Eventually I went on to get a doctorate in public administration, and I thought I’d be an academic for the rest of my career. But my need to make things happen quickly and my desire to create system change for children and families led me to Project Harmony Child Advocacy Center.

Project Harmony is a non-profit agency that coordinates the investigation of child abuse and neglect, as well as medical care, advocacy, and therapy services for children and youth who have suffered abuse, neglect, sex trafficking, or other forms of violence. Project Harmony provides hands-on training for law enforcement, child protective services, therapists, educators, and medical professionals about trauma, abuse, and evidence-based therapies. In 2015, in an effort to prevent abuse from happening, we started Connections, a mental health program for children and youth. Connections works with three group: students and their families; schools; and mental health therapists. Schools receive training about trauma and evidence-based practices, and they refer students who may be struggling with anxiety, depression, coping with challenging family situations, etc. The Connections team meets with families and helps connect them with mental health therapists in the community. Unique to Connections is the support given to families to help them access therapy, such as transportation, child care costs; and the training provided to therapists so they can deliver high quality therapy. Finally, Connections coordinates group therapy for students who might not be able to access therapy outside of school hours.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

While there have been many interesting stories, the story I’m choosing to share is more profound than interesting. I had been working at Project Harmony for five years and had just returned from presenting about coordinated child abuse investigations at the San Diego International Conference on Child Maltreatment when I received a call from my daughter that my four-year old grandson had disclosed sexual abuse. His perpetrator was the adult son of his day-care provider. We lived the experience that families who come to Project Harmony experience — the forensic interview, advocacy services, therapy, and after 21 long months, the conviction and sentencing of his perpetrator. I saw the trauma on my daughter and son-in-law’s faces. I agonized over the thought that my grandson would have to testify in court with perpetrator present. I struggled with the long delays in the court process. And I also witnessed the commitment of my daughter and son-in-law to ensure their children were safe; the resilience of my grandson as he completed therapy; and the difference a coordinated child abuse investigation can make to one family. I also saw the benefit of therapy, not only for my grandson, but his entire family.

People often walk into Project Harmony and ask if it’s difficult to work here because we work with abused and neglected or traumatized children every day. I always let them know that the trauma already happened. Healing begins here.

School Mental Health Conference

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

60% of all children suffer violence or trauma every year. Yet only 20% of children who need mental health services receive help. We believe that no child should have to get hurt to get help. If mental health services were offered early — to children and their parents — mental health would improve, family relationships would get stronger, attendance and school performance would improve, and we would reduce the incidence of abuse and neglect.

Since 2015, Connections has served over 3500 children and their families. Many families needed financial help with co-pays, deductibles, transportation, or childcare. My big idea is that the stigma about accepting help would vanish, that people would recognize we all need help now and then, that going to therapy would be seen as a strength instead of a deficit, and that we viewed mental health treatment as a right, not a privilege.

How do you think this will change the world?

Many people are familiar with the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, which shows the long term consequences of childhood adversities, which include chronic mental health problems, substance abuse, chronic illnesses, diabetes, heart disease, and even death. If people didn’t make judgments about those of us needing help — if we learned to ask “What happened to her?” rather than “What’s wrong with her?” If people had access to high quality mental health care, we could create a more compassionate world, with less crime, less domestic violence, less homelessness, and less abuse/neglect.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Having enough mental health providers to meet the need is an ongoing challenge. This is compounded when seeking providers who have high quality training; providers who speak languages other than English; and providers who represent different ethnicities and races. Another potential drawback is the fear people have of a child being labeled or diagnosed with a mental health disorder. This is why it’s so important to reduce stigma and view mental health care as important as physical care.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

My tipping point came when I was 9 years old. I had a younger brother who would have been a Connections kid had the program existed in the 1960s. Instead of getting the help he needed, the school expelled him at age 14. I remember thinking the school didn’t know how to help him, my parents didn’t know how to help him, and mental health care wasn’t offered or available to children.

While I wasn’t able to help my brother, I’m incredibly grateful to be able to influence the development of Connections, to make sure that children struggling in school can get the help they need. Equally important, we serve the entire family as we recognize that if one family member is exhibiting symptoms, chances are the whole family may need support and/or therapy.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Children spend most of their day in school. We need teacher education programs to teach college students about the impact of trauma on the brain and how to teach children who have been exposed to trauma. We need first responders to learn trauma-informed strategies when responding to people in crisis. We need legislation that supports more training, more staff, and more mental health programming for schools. In 2016, the Mayor of Omaha declared Omaha a trauma-informed community, kicking off a multi-year effort to train educators, medical professionals, juvenile justice staff, first responders, and the media about the dynamics of trauma and how to respond in a trauma-informed manner. This initiative, called Trauma Matters Omaha, is a replicable effort with the potential to be the tipping point in increasing understanding, reducing stigma, and supporting more mental health services for all children and families.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

1. Collaboration is hard work. Partnering with schools, families, and mental health providers takes time, persistence, and patience. We needed to learn the language used by school employees, which is very different from the mental health language. We also needed to learn when to accommodate our needs for our partner’s needs, and when to push for equal collaboration.

2. It is possible to make a good living as a social worker. Most people believe social work is what you do in your volunteer time. When I was an academic, many of my students told me stories about their parents being disappointed upon hearing their child wanted to be a social worker. The number one question parents asked me was, “But will my child be able to make a living as a social worker?” The answer is yes. If you find your path, you’ll be able to make a good living at it because you’ll enjoy doing it. That doesn’t mean that most social workers live happily in poverty. It means there are many good paying jobs to be found in this field.

3. Providing a new service or program is more about the relationships than the service or program. Collaboration works when trust develops. Building trust means being vulnerable sometimes, taking risks sometimes, and listening to each other’s concerns, questions, and ideas. When Connections began working in schools, the most common refrain was, “You need to build trust with our families.” That means showing up at school when families are there, being available to providers when they need assistance, and continually reaching out even when it may seem futile.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Continue to learn. Read literature about your field — for me, that’s school mental health, trauma, resilience, etc. Stay current on politics, economics, grant trends. Be able to problem solve on the fly. Learn to think deeply and critically. And without a doubt, the number one thing you can do to future proof your life is to learn emotional self-regulation. The more self-awareness you have, and the more you practice mindfulness, but more you’ll be able to navigate career and life challenges.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

Some research indicates that the most important predictor of future success is not intelligence or IQ or grades or test scores, but rather emotional self-regulation. With a goal of strengthening mental health, I would invest in innovations designed to build resilience. That could be mindfulness meditation, yoga, coping skills, or an innovation we haven’t even thought of yet.

Connections Breakfast Event

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

1. Don’t believe everything you think. I can get carried away with making assumptions or jumping to conclusions and this typically happens more often if I’m stressed. Then I remind myself that my thoughts can run crazy and I shouldn’t believe everything I think.

2. Lean in when you’d rather not. When one of our critical partners is resistant to an idea or service, it can be easier to think we don’t need to work with them and we’ll do things on our own. Instead, this is the very time I need to lean in. Call them, take them to coffee, get to know each other personally, take some time to build trust.

3. Do the research. As a former academic, I don’t want to represent someone or present something without feeling confident and competent in the subject matter. I always begin with research. It grounds me, helps me identify gaps, and provides direction about where I need to go.

4. We can do more when we work together. Collaboration is hard, but so worth it. In the long run, the best projects are those in which no one knows whose specific idea it was, or how it came to be, but we look back and see that WE made it happen. Project Harmony is built on a foundation of collaboration. Connections just continued it with schools and mental health providers.

5. Doing the right thing doesn’t always feel good. I’ve had to coach people to leave positions that weren’t right for them. I’ve had to terminate people. I’ve had to end programs. I used to believe that if the decision I was making was right, I’d feel good about it. Not true. Doing the right thing doesn’t always feel good. In fact, it can feel downright crappy.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

There is enough for everyone. Project Harmony is a non-profit organization, and among non-profits there can be a competitiveness about having enough resources. We have always operated from a position that there is abundance and we can get what we need if the program or service we’re offering is needed.

Be persistent and don’t give up. My first attempt to develop a training program at Project Harmony fell flat. I thought I had the support and engagement of two critical partners — law enforcement and child protective services — and was told in no uncertain terms that they were not interested in any training I offered. While I was tempted to give up, I didn’t. I figured out another way to gain their trust and I did it. Today, they request our training for their staff, they train with us, and they are among our biggest supporters.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

60% of all children, every year, suffer violence or trauma. Only 20% will receive help. We need to make sure that every child who needs mental health care, gets it. No child should have to get hurt to get help. By investing early in a child’s mental health, we can improve behaviors, school performance, and family functioning while reducing abuse, neglect, and criminal activity.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Our website is







Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.