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Mississippi’s kids urgently need...

Mississippi’s kids urgently need stronger mental health system

By: John Damon - February 20, 2024

  • Dr. John Damon of Canopy Children’s Solutions shares how Mississippi leaders can take bold action to help the state’s children this legislative session. 

You hear it every day: anxiety, depression, drug and substance abuse, gun violence, sex trafficking. The numbers tell a troubling story: America’s children are experiencing a mental health crisis only made worse by the long-term impacts of COVID-19. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association jointly declared a “national state of emergency in children’s mental health.”

Unfortunately, Mississippi is no different; in the last 6 years, Canopy Children’s Solutions alone has seen an 80% increase in children seeking care.  As the largest nonprofit organization focused on children’s mental health, we are on the front lines in this battle.  Now, more than ever, we have an urgent need to create a system of care in which all kids have a chance to not only survive, but to thrive.  

Helping kids succeed is personal.  When I was 10, alcoholism ripped my family apart.  This fragile time in life was coupled with our home burning down one night while my sister and I were being watched by a babysitter. I was once a kid in need who experienced great loss and trauma. Thankfully, someone came alongside me and changed the course of my life forever. Even then I knew that I wanted to be someone who offered that same helping hand to another kid in need.

That’s why I have spent the last 30 years at Canopy, a pro-family, child-centered, people-focused, and results-oriented nonprofit organization that was established more than 110 years ago.  Each year, we serve approximately 8,000 children and their families from every single Mississippi county by providing mental health, educational, and family support solutions.

I agree with lawmakers: The time is now for Mississippi leaders to take bold action to help our kids.  Here’s how. 

Encourage private support for foster children

First, the solution to improving children’s mental health does not solely lie with state government.  The private sector has a critical role to play, and I support legislative efforts that encourage their continued financial support, such as the Children’s Promise Act.  This tax credit was designed to reach organizations like Canopy who serve foster children.  In fact, since this tax credit was passed, Canopy has had a 97 percent success rate diverting children from entering state custody, resulting in more than 5,000 children remaining safely at home and saving the state over $200 million.  More importantly, we have prevented the transgenerational impact and trauma of a child being removed from their family unit.

Providing a safe, treatment-appropriate place for kids to recover 

Just as our state has a “Level 1 trauma” designation for healthcare, so too should we have a parallel designation for mental health care.  Right now, Mississippi’s children have nowhere to go between short-term acute care (settings protecting children from themselves or others) and long-term residential care.  This gap has created poor outcomes and long waitlists, leading to some children being housed in non-therapeutic locations like hotels.  Mississippi should bridge this divide by instituting sub-acute care as a new treatment level.  This not only meets an urgent need of care, but it also relieves fiscal pressure, as the highest level of care costs taxpayers about $1,000 per child per day.

Increase specialized K-12 settings to allow schools to focus on the basics

Half of all mental illnesses emerge by the time a child turns 14, making our K-12 system a critical piece of the mental health landscape.  Yet teachers, principals, and other school district staff aren’t equipped to handle severe behavioral and mental health challenges.  Investing in special purpose schools, such as CARES School Hattiesburg, relieves the pressure on our local public schools to respond to ever-increasing mental health challenges. Children are allowed to thrive in specialized settings while the home school district is freed up to focus on the children they are equipped to serve.  

Our CARES school in Hattiesburg is fully accredited by the Mississippi Department of Education and serves 24 school districts in central and south Mississippi.  As a special purpose school, it has small, self-contained classes and trauma-informed interventions with licensed teachers and specialists who work daily with children ages first through twelfth grade.  The results? A 99 percent placement rate of children successfully reintegrating into their local educational system and 80 percent of students seeing improvement in their math and/or reading skills.

Research needed to track outcomes 

Children are not small adults.  They have unique psychological, developmental, and educational needs. However, the systems paying for mental health services are largely designed for adults.  States like Texas have adopted comprehensive legislation which includes research efforts to study issues like youth depression and suicide.  I believe such efforts are paramount to getting a handle on Mississippi’s mental health landscape and creating a system that can flexibly respond to the rapidly changing needs of our children.

Make services available, affordable for everyone

Finally, I believe the state should review its Medicaid rate structure with an eye toward two goals: affordability and availability.  Thousands of children are covered by Medicaid, and recent data shows a positive correlation between higher primary care reimbursement rates and rates of reduced mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders.  As leaders review the state’s Medicaid program this year, I hope they will consider its impact on mental health treatment coverage in both the private and public insurance markets.  Increasing reimbursement rates to more appropriate levels will attract more Medicaid providers to serve kids. 

The time to act is now

In my three decades of experience, I can tell you that, left untreated, mental and behavioral health issues get worse over time.  These issues will not simply go away, and the time to act is now.  The future can and must be brighter for our state’s most precious resource – our children.

About the Author(s)
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John Damon

Dr. John Damon is the CEO of Canopy Children's Solutions.