“Society can help de-stigmatize mental illness by creating trauma-informed organizations and communities.” with Debra Anderson

Fotis Georgiadis
Jun 25 · 8 min read

I had the pleasure of interviewing Debra Anderson, MSW, PhD, 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 the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I quite accidentally found social work. During my freshman year of college, when I wasn’t sure what I was doing or where I was going or what I wanted to do with my life, my father entered treatment for alcoholism. For the very first time, my family openly acknowledged our need for help. Part of my dad’s treatment included a week of family therapy, so I took time off from college, moved home, and went to what was called “family week.” The experience saved my family, and I knew I wanted to be able to do what the counselors did for us. I switched schools and changed my major to social work. The beauty of this field is that one can work in so many different settings, and I’ve taken advantage of that. I’ve worked in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, public child welfare, and eventually I obtained a doctorate and became an academic.

Twelve years ago I came to Project Harmony Child Advocacy Center to start the Training Institute. We provide training about child abuse and neglect for law enforcement, legal professionals, child protective services, medical staff, school employees, and others who work with children. Last year the training team trained over 15,000 people!

In 2014, community leaders recognized a growing need for children to have quality mental health care. We know that 60% of all children are exposed to violence and trauma each year, and most don’t receive mental health care, Schools were especially challenged with addressing their students’ mental health needs. So with support from private donors, Project Harmony started an early intervention program for elementary and middle-school youth called Connections and I was given the opportunity to be the first director. Since opening our doors in 2015, we’ve served over 4000 children, youth, and families.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

We’re afraid of what we don’t understand. And mental illness is hard to understand. If a friend or family member suffers from depression, we tend to think they ought to take some meds and snap out of it. If someone you know suffers from psychosis, their behavior may be unpredictable, and that can be scary. If someone you love is suicidal, it can cause feelings of helplessness and despair. Mental illness can evoke unpleasant feelings for us — fear, sadness, anger, helplessness — and I think most of us prefer to avoid those feelings. As a result, we avoid people who have mental illnesses and in turn, those of us who have struggled with depression or anxiety or another type of mental illness may keep it to ourselves. This increases isolation which can escalate the mental illness.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

I love your term, “mental wellness” instead of “mental illness.” I think if we use that terminology more, it would help de-stigmatize mental illness.

We de-stigmatize mental illness when we acknowledge how common it is, and when we share our stories, when we stop isolating, when we stop treating others as different. I think it helps to hear celebrities open up about their mental health conditions — Demi Lovato, Chrissy Teigen, Prince Harry, Kendrick Lamar, Bruce Springsteen — because we see that people can struggle with mental health issues and be successful.

It also helps when we recognize and support self-care initiatives. Schools are promoting mindful meditation, yoga, mentoring, and other activities that build resilience. Organizations like mine are recognizing that the work we do can lead to secondary trauma and are developing wellness programs that support employees. Cities like Omaha are launching “trauma-informed community” initiatives — ours is called Trauma Matters Omaha. The goal is to two fold — to help recognize the impact of trauma on every one of us and to educate people to respond in a trauma-informed, as opposed to judgmental, way. The more we seek to understand the other person, the more we learn her story, the less we will judge her.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

As a child advocacy center, Project Harmony has been responding to child abuse and neglect for over 22 years. When children are alleged to have been physically or sexually abused, they come to Project Harmony for a forensic assessment to gather evidence about the allegation. The assessment includes an interview, medical exam, advocacy and mental health services.

Five years ago, we add a phrase to our mission statement — to protect and support children, collaborate with professionals and engage the community to end child abuse and neglect. If we truly want to end child abuse and neglect, we believe we need to prevent it before it starts.

Connections helps us end child abuse and neglect because we help children and their families access high quality mental health services before abuse happens. We consider ourselves a one-stop shop for children’s mental health needs. Schools refer students to us, we match them with a qualified mental health therapist, and we provide support to families if they encounter barriers such as transportation, child care, or no insurance. Providing coordinated referral and supported therapy services has enabled children and families to access therapy in cases where they may have gone without. And by providing evidence-based training to community mental health therapists, we have confidence that the quality of therapy is high.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

a) Individuals should seek to understand others rather than judge them. Oftentimes the most helpful thing a person can do is simply be there and be supportive. Don’t ignore or avoid, but stay with that person.

b) Society can help de-stigmatize mental illness by creating trauma-informed organizations and communities. Whether it’s training your community about trauma or developing wellness policies for your organization, the more we normalize mental illness, the better off we’ll be.

c) While mental health parity is theoretically available, our government can do more to ensure it is actually available. Medicaid expansion is needed, rates for behavioral health care need to increase, mental health services need to be more available at all levels — from outpatient to inpatient care and everything in between.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

I like to think I’m good at taking care of myself, but honestly, when work and life get overly busy, I drink too much coffee, eat too much junk food, and sleep too little. At my best, though, here are a few things that help me.

1) Without fail, I read devotions every single morning. My day doesn’t begin well unless I read first. I get up early, pour a cup of coffee, sit in my rocking chair and have quiet time before the world awakes.

2) I work out. This isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I love how I feel when it’s over. No gym, just me in my basement. I put on an old-fashioned DVD and work up a sweat.

3) I listen to instrumental music at work. My mind is like a hamster on a wheel, running, running, running, so soft music calms me.

4) I talk to a friend. When I’m feeling stressed or confused or indecisive, I have a nice long heart-to-heart with a friend. It always helps.

5) I get busy in the kitchen. I have a chronic illness and avoid gluten, dairy, and grains, and when I’m taking care of myself, I cook and bake foods that are delicious and healthy. (And I have a husband who cooks for me, too).

6) I keep a gratitude journal. I started this a few years ago during a particularly difficult time in my life when I didn’t think I had anything to be grateful for. My therapist recommended that I write down 3 things each day that I was thankful for, and they couldn’t be the same things. I began looking for simple things that made me happy — like the very first cup of coffee in the morning, or seeing an eagle fly as I drove home from work.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Where to begin?!

I am a podcast junkie — I regularly listen to For the Love with Jen Hatmaker; The Next Best Thing with Emily P Freeman (about decision-making); Clear and Vivid with Alan Alda (esp loved his interview with Father Greg Boyle); Everything Happens for a Reason with Kate Bowler; and What Should I Read Next with Anne Bogel.

I’m inspired by reading about how people have dealt with adversity in their lives. My favorite type of book is memoir, especially spiritual memoir. Some recent loves were Shauna NIequist’s Present over Perfect and Bread and Wine; Tara Westover’s Educated; and Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place.

I turn to several online resources at work, including the National Child Traumatic Stress Network; the ACES Connection; and Child Welfare Information Gateway. And I’m delighted that the leadership group at Project Harmony has read several books together, including Reality Based Leadership and No Ego, both by Cy Wakeman; Crucial Conversations, and FYI: For Your Improvement.

Thank you for joining us!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Fotis Georgiadis

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Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.