Real Stories of a (Former) Mental Health Worker

Note: There is this gorgeous law (HIPAA) that prevents me from using real names in this post, and so I will use an asterisk when needed to indicate that names were changed. I will also not use the actual names of the facilities I worked at for similar reasons, because I’m not trying to get sued. I’m a blogger and behavior health technician, not a millionaire.

This month is Mental Health Awareness Month. This post is dedicated to my former co-workers (especially my Resource Team friends) and mental health professionals everywhere.

It’s a rough profession and deserves a lot more respect than it gets. It’s also very rewarding, which is one of the many reasons why I am glad that I chose psychology as my field of work.

A Few Definitions

I know not everyone understands these terms, so here are some definitions to help you out a bit:

Mental Health Technician/Mental Health Worker/Mental Health Associate: these are all pretty much the same, depending on where you work. I’ve been called all three.

1:1: a patient that requiring someone is with them at all times, whether they are asleep or not, sometimes both. This can get very tedious, and sometimes you have to stay within arms’ reach of the patient for safety reasons.

Code: this is not the code you see on TV. This code is for physical backup when things get out of hand, mainly when a patient is being aggressive, destructive or a combo. These are called for a variety of reasons, but these are the two most common ones.

Resource Team- an amazing team of people trained to work on every inpatient unit in a mental health facility. They are responsible for knowing everything about all the units, and they catch hell for messing up. It’s a great team to be a part of because they stick together and you never know what will happen next or where you will be. It’s also very stressful.

Checks/Rounds: ensuring patient safety by visualizing patients every 15 minutes.

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(I’ve seen C.Diff, and it’s ugly, especially in non-verbal kids. YIKES)

Let me set up the story for you…

In June 2007, Spalding University granted me a Bachelor of Arts in Clinical Psychology. Many don’t know this unless you ask, see it in my author bio or on my resume.

It took me five years, a change in major (my first major was in apparel design and merchandising- fancy wording for fashion design), school and two kids, but I finally graduated. I also completed a mandatory 100-hour practicum.

I was not prepared for my first job out of college. I had gotten a job as a Mental Health Technician at *Clear Lake Hospital and I was a bit nervous but ready to start my career.

I started the week after I finished classes. (I walked June 2, but still to finish my last class, which was sheer torture.) I did fine in orientation but was not happy when I found out that I was placed on the geriatric unit.

What?

This facility didn’t let you pick what unit you went to, but I had hoped I wasn’t going to get put on a unit I didn’t like.

I was not thrilled about being placed on this unit, known as the *Willow Tree Unit. I wanted to transfer immediately, but there was a policy preventing me from doing so for 6 months. I decided to wait it out.

Two months into that wait, I discovered that I was pregnant with Lily. My OB/GYN told me that I would be better off where I was because the pregnancy was not an easy one from the beginning.

A different unit would be a faster pace and could result in more issues with my pregnancy. I decided to stay put so that Lily would have a better chance of being okay. I ended up liking the *Willow Tree Unit.

The staff was nice- I was the youngest tech on first shift. Once word got around that I was pregnant, the nurses and other techs took care of me.

One afternoon, my shoes became untied and I couldn’t reach them because my belly was huge. I burst into tears and one of my fellow techs tied them for me. She understood the struggle- she’d been in my spot two years before.

I didn’t get to finish out the pregnancy on that unit- I went into preterm labor at 31 weeks (on Cameron’s 3rd birthday, of all days) and my OB/GYN told me that I would have to stop working or go on light duty, basically a desk job.

I chose the desk job because we needed the money. I went to medical records for all of five weeks or so. The ladies there were nice and began a betting pool on when Lily would show up. Lily shares a birthday with one of the ladies in the office, which everyone found hilarious.

Thanks to Kentucky state budget cuts, the *Willow Tree Unit was closed down while I was on light duty, and when I came back from maternity leave, I was sent to an acute care unit. I was better suited for that unit and stayed there until I left in June 2008 for a counseling position in Indiana.

The Real Fun Begins

In late 2010, I was ready for a new and closer to home position. I found another Mental Health Worker position at *MidRiver Regional Hospital. This time, I was able to pick where I wanted to go, because it was in the application. I would be on the Resource Team. It sounded very interesting and kind of fun.

I was absolutely right. Orientation was a bit boring- but that’s where I met Josh (Jake’s older brother) so I call that a win. I had to shadow for a couple of weeks on each unit- a couple of days with another worker, and then I was unleashed.

The very first day was a day that is forever etched in my mind- I was on *2West, a unit that was then used for kids from 12-18 with autism and other developmental disabilities. It was super loud, wild and some of the kids were way bigger than me.

What did I sign up for?

I took a huge deep breath, looked at my assignment sheet and kept going.

I spent two years on the Resource Team. It was a lot of fun- full of laughs, friends, and a few mishaps. I’ve run after people that eloped, including one that I chased across a busy street along with another worker. The kid ran off at a hospital and we did catch her. I’ve been punched in the head. I even caught a stereo cord to the face.

I was with a 1:1 and the patient was very upset about her Justin Beiber CD was repeatedly skipping. I told her that maybe it was time to try a different activity, and tried to unplug the stereo. She picked it up, then dropped it, and when I went to pick it up, she hit me in the face with the cord.

A code was immediately called and I was taken off the floor. I was taken to the main nursing office to get my face looked at.

I called Matthew to get me from work, and he took me to a nearby hospital- I ended up with three liquid stitches. You can barely see the scar today. I took the next day off because my eye was so swollen that I had a hard time seeing out of it, and let me tell you, tetanus shots are not fun.

As for the patient, she was so upset when she found out what happened to me, she became hysterical. I was one of her favorite staff members. She had to be medicated to calm down. She apologized the next time she saw me.

While I was working at this facility, things were not that great at home. Julian wasn’t diagnosed until late 2011. I was struggling a lot internally with both anxiety and depression. You can read about those events in A Letter to my Anxiety and Depression and Looking At the Bright Side

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I was able to lose myself in my work. I loved being able to help others and work with great people. We had a lot of fun on the good days and on the not so good days, pull together and make things work. That, to me, is the definition of teamwork.

In March 2013, I had a mini-stroke. My neurologist suggested afterward that I needed to start looking for ways to lessen or eliminate stress in my life. By this point, I was ready to leave the Resource Team- it was getting too stressful for me. Some people leave after months, some people stay the entire time they are at the facility.

I started thinking about which unit would be a good fit. I was pretty much done with adults- that was where the bulk of my work had been, and I needed something different. I had realized that I really enjoyed the kids on *2West and the staff was great.

I’d volunteer to go there when other people didn’t want to go- it was a rough unit. I didn’t really enjoy cleaning poop off walls (who does? I can’t make this up, it really happens) but it had become my favorite unit.

It took a few months of waiting, but a position opened up. By then, I had met Jake, and that was his home unit. I applied, interviewed and got the full-time Mental Health Associate position. My Resource Team friends were sad to see me go (my friend Scott begged me not to go), but they were not surprised to hear where I was going.

It turns out that going to *2West was the best career move I’ve ever made. I loved it.

Those kids were not always the easiest to work with- I’ve been kicked in the eye, had my hair pulled out in clumps, broken my big left toe twice and in the same way. It still doesn’t bend correctly. I’ve seen all kinds of naked kids. I’ve left work scratched and bruised from multiple holds. I’ve gotten sick from these kids- strep throat can go through 20 kids fast.

I also learned a lot- how to sign (some), how to learn about a kid even when they are non-verbal. I learned that some families are worse than you can imagine and even the ones that look great are horrible.

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Autism is not seen as often in girls, but when it is, it tends to be severe. One of my favorite kids was a tall, thin girl named *Michelle. She was a runner and I got lots of exercise running after her in the halls. She was also non-verbal but showed her feelings by squeezing your hands.

She squeezed my hands every day to say “hello” and “goodbye” but if she was angry, she would pull on your arms while squeezing your hands. She was so much fun to work with. When she left, she bent down to hug me goodbye, and both *Claire (her behavior analyst) and I cried. That’s a very unusual thing.

Taylor Swift sing-a-longs were a regular thing and so were movie days on the weekends. We tried to make things as fun as we could for the kids. We took them outside and let them play as much as they were able to on the playground. We got the kids out of bed, fed them, got them through their days and back into bed- for some of them, we were more of a family to them than their own.

*Mason was a kid who saw us exactly like that. I met him while doing checks and he was in the shower singing “Baby Got Back”. He was hilarious, and once beatboxed to me about needing toothpaste.

However, he came from a family that didn’t treat him well, which contributed to some of the reasons he came to the facility. Once, I was planning an outing with another associate, and he asked us to take him and the other patients to a strip club. That did not happen, but we laughed hysterically after he left the room.

These kids were so funny, smart in their own way. I couldn’t have asked for better co-workers. Some days entirely sucked, but it was still a fun adventure.

My last day there was September 2, 2015. I left after being told about Jake’s death, and I came back two days later to get my things and leave my nurse manager a note telling her I wouldn’t be back.

I couldn’t write this post without mentioning Jake, Austin, Scott (not the one mentioned earlier), Cisco or Colleen. I lost these co-workers while working with them or after and each loss was a bad one. They left behind families that loved them and patients that they touched. They worked hard (Cisco got electrocuted trying to keep a patient safe) and had a lot of love for their patients.

I’m retired from this line of work- thanks to my RA diagnosis. My rheumatologist would go ballistic. I am left with so many memories and friends. That’s what work and life are all about.

All pics are my personal pics except for one pin on my Pinterest board. Pinterest

Moms Mess Up

*This post was written after a meeting with Lily’s OT, Amy.*

Moms mess up. We’re human, we miss things. We yell when we are frustrated and tired but feel bad about two seconds later.

I know I’m a good mom, even when I do mess up. I even confess to being a former perfectionist in this post.

One of my biggest parenting mistakes has been with Lily. She’s the youngest of my kids and believe me, I am TIRED. I have definitely lowered my standards in parenting. It’s just too much to try to be perfect. Anyone that knows me knows that I am a mama bear and will forget my anger management skills if you mess with my kids.

What’s this mistake I made?

If you’ve read my posts about Lily, you’ve read about my worries about her development.

I didn’t get her what she needed earlier.

Ugh.

When she left First Steps (early intervention), I was told that she may have some issues in the future but I figured she would be okay.

Plus, Julian was tearing apart my house and head butting me, so honestly, I didn’t have the brainpower to watch for any issues Lily might have had.

We all know that my marriage was going downhill so it’s not like I had Matthew’s support.

I’m not making excuses, just setting the scene.

Lily got older, gained weight and became anxiety-prone.

Same, baby, same..

It wasn’t until she literally had meltdowns that something clicked. At first, I feared another kid with autism. One kid is a challenge, I have no idea what I would do with two.

Instead, Lily has ADD, and as of my writing this, she isn’t medicated. I have held back because I know she hates medicine, but even Matthew thinks it might be a good idea.

So that is another mess up. Julian has been medicated since he was 5 years old and knows skipping isn’t an option unless he’s really sick. I wonder if she was already medicated, would she be doing better? I say this because it would help her concentration, among other things.

Being Nicer to Myself

Matthew told me to not be so hard on myself but it’s kind of hard not to be. I don’t really know how I missed these things – I think we figured, oh, okay, that’s just how Lily is.

Part of her issues is that she avoids sensory things that bother her. She avoids it because she isn’t sure how to process it. This makes sense. She also has poor motor planning, which explains her inability to ride a bike.

Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about sensory issues, so it’s probably time to read up. I have the feeling she has Sensory Processing Disorder, but she would have to be fully evaluated by someone who could diagnose her. I don’t get it, I just know Lily’s brain works differently.

I’m sure I’ll figure all of this out.

Today just isn’t that day.

Five Ways to Avoid Holiday Meltdowns

Meltdowns are not a fun event, no matter what day of the year it is. Most of the time, they can be avoided, but sometimes, it’s entirely out of our control. To learn more about meltdowns, you can read The Truth About Shutdowns and Meltdowns

Give thanks

Bringing Down The Stress

The holiday season can be a stressful time- starting with Halloween and ending at New Year’s Eve. This can depend on which holidays your family celebrates- some families don’t celebrate anything at all, some celebrate everything.

Isn’t that neat? My family celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Chanukah. My mother is Jewish, so we go to her house every year to have some fun over the eight nights. It’s fun but can get a bit tiring, so we go at our own speed.

Things can be a bit more stressful if you run into family members that don’t understand your child’s special needs- especially if they don’t want to. There is a difference between not knowing and not wanting to know. This topic is a bit more detailed in Helping Your Family Understand Your Child’s Special Needs

Overall, there are ways to help your family get through the holiday season in a way that everyone can remember fondly.

Upset child

Five Golden Rings…I Mean, Tips

  1. Avoid places with crowds, loud noises, etc. Many kids with special needs do not like the line to see Santa. It’s loud, bright, and if you’re Julian, there are germs everywhere. Some kids do not do well in crowds, because it’s too cramped, things move too fast, and sensory issues can be caused by very small things that we are not aware of. Some places are becoming more aware of this and are offering sensory-friendly gatherings, so look around in your area.
  2. Be flexible. This is most likely the most important tip. Flexibility is a requirement in parenting, but in this case, there’s more of a need. Things can change in a second with our special needs kids, and this is okay. Things can become just too much for them, and they need the ability to find a quiet spot to calm down in or leave entirely. Bring two adults to events so that one can stay with the other children, bring adaptive equipment, etc.
  3. Watch out for wandering. This can occur when a child needs to escape quickly from a situation they do not want to be in- a loud party, for example. Keep an extra-close eye on your child near doors and other routes away from your location.
  4. Keep up your routine. Most kids are on a break for a week before and after Christmas. It’s important to keep up a daily routine- eating and sleeping as close to usual times as you can. Kids do better when they know what is going on. It keeps their anxiety low and they are less likely to get off-track with behaviors.
  5. Take a break if you need it. If things get to be too much for you and/or your child, it may be time for a break. Don’t go to the next party. Don’t worry about the next celebration. Stay home, watch a movie and snuggle up with your family. This can be more fun than going out and potentially creating more stress.

Christmas gifts

The holiday season is upon us, the weather is getting colder. Let’s make great memories with our families.

What tips do you have to prevent meltdowns with your kids?

Photos courtesy of Unsplash

Information from CBS

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