After 17 years on the job, Sarah Cannon is stepping down as Executive Director of Parents for Children’s Mental Health (PCMH). Barnes Management Group asked Sarah to speak about what has changed in the child and youth mental health system – and how the service system continues to fail children, youth and families.
What is the biggest change you have seen in how parents and families are treated by the mental health service system?
There has been a big change. But if I am being totally honest, the biggest change has been at the planning level. There has been much less change at the individual level, where family members deal with early intervention and treatment issues.
I think there has been a lot of work done at a system planning level to build partnerships with each other, and we are beginning to build partnerships with families at that planning level. So that has taken some time, as any relationship building will, now we have to have those relationships and partnerships translate into change in both how services are delivered and how we work with families at that treatment level as well.
Well, system leaders have had more time to get comfortable with having families and caregivers at the table. And perhaps system planning discussions are easier ones to have with parents because there is less emotion involved. As ED of PCMH I have seen lots of change. But of course, most families are not sitting at the planning tables – they are dealing with their own particular circumstances.
You have been a feisty advocate with government. What’s been your biggest success?
In 2015, the government identified family engagement as a key process [in the Program Guidelines and Requirements document, released by the former MCYS]. This was part of a commitment by that government to work through what it really means to partner with families. Having families at the table takes time, and it can be emotional. But the government was committed to it. This led to other concrete steps, such as the family engagement training co-developed with the Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health and the Provincial Standard in Family Engagement. I can definitively point to where families influenced these things and foresee them having an impact on how the system works with and partners with families.
What single change would you like to see to the child and youth mental health system?[Big sigh.] That is a big question! If I could make one change – every single staff person in the system needs to be hired through a hiring process that had families, caregivers and youth as part of the decision-making. Everyone in the sector should know who they are accountable to– the children, youth and families they serve. This is a huge paradigm shift. Of course, I would do a whole bunch of other things, too!
What have you learned about deploying your own personal family story as part of your work?
When I reflect on my family story, I have learned to think of our experience as a system failure. It is not just “this happened to my family” but “things went wrong for my family because of a flawed system”. It is challenging to know the difference between when I am there representing a broad family perspective, and when I need to speak to my own personal experience. I haven’t always been successful in this!
Here is an example: it’s not just that we waited six months for service. The fact is, lots of us have waited six months for service, so my story is intersecting with a lot of other people’s story. I have also learned – particularly as my children get older – that I need to be mindful of the impact on them of speaking publicly. Because it is not just my story, it’s our story.
What advice do you have for your successor?
Everyone needs to learn things on their own, and the key is to never stop learning. There are a lot of great people in the sector, and you can learn from them. The main struggle will be to make sure that you are always true to a family perspective.
I know this sounds corny – but I am really grateful to the early adopters. As families, we banged on a lot of doors. And you know what? People often opened those doors for us. There are a lot of champions for kids, and for families. Lots of people were very supportive and patient – with us, and with me.
When I started this job, I was a family member with a chip on my shoulder. I was angry about a flawed system that let people down. But I have learned there are a lot of good people working in this flawed system, and we would be in much worse shape without them.
What’s next for you?
My goal is to continue to have an impact on how we engage families and build meaningful partnerships with families in how we plan and deliver MH services. What that looks like exactly? I am not exactly sure at this point. I’ll keep you posted!
Written By Barney Savage of Barnes Management Group December 18th, 2019