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

Autism: A Life Changer

Kids are wonderful. They will make laugh, cry, maybe question your whole life.

When your child receives a major diagnosis, it takes time to accept it. It takes time to move forward.

You can read about my coming to terms with Julian’s diagnosis here

There are so many varying thoughts and theories about autism. This makes for a lot of different ways that people with autism are treated, even by their own families.

I speak about that in another blog post, Family Acceptance

Everyone reacts differently to a diagnosis. Some of us are relieved (me), some are devastated and others become angry. It kind of depends on the road you took to the diagnosis.

Even if your child is verbal and able to take care of themselves, it doesn’t mean you worry less. Julian is a concrete thinker, struggles with empathy and isn’t the best at advocating for himself. I realize these things may hold him back in the future, and he’s a teenager now. He will be 14 in July, a fact that makes me sad.

I worry a lot about his future. I realize that I won’t always be there to get him what he needs or remind him that he hurt his sister’s feelings because his intended joke didn’t seem funny to her. I wonder how he will do living on his own.

But yet, I have faith in the kid. He’s very smart, analytical, and does great with managing his money. I have the feeling I will keep a close eye on him as long as I need to.

I’ve never met a parent that planned for their child to have autism, ADHD, or many other developmental disabilities. We just hope for the best. I’m not sure I would change Julian having autism because it’s part of who he is, but I would take away the struggles he’s had.

Adjusting to an autism diagnosis can be difficult. Changing your and your family’s life to meet your child’s extensive needs can be a lot- but it’s worth it. It may require outside help and this is okay. I struggled for a long time with this when Lily was a toddler in First Steps.

One of the best things you can do is research. It’s so helpful. Researching will help you gain insight into how to deal with behaviors, to remind yourself that none of this is your fault. You’ll be armed with information to answer questions from others.

Another good thing? Know your kid. If you know your child won’t touch certain foods or textures, you’re more likely to make adjustments with food, clothing, etc. This also helps during school meetings. Knowing your child will make things easier on everyone involved.

One of the more interesting things about raising a child with autism is that it changes how you see the world. By the time Julian was diagnosed, I had already been working with kids with autism for a couple years.

You look closer at the small things. You become a “mama bear”, ready to fight someone over your child’s needs. I’ve done this many times and it’s gotten great results. Julian knows that I always have his back. You learn to see the world in a different way- not everyone accepts or understands autism. This stinks but it’s very true.

Autism is a life changer, whether you’re the person that has it or you’re raising a kid. Everyday is different. Your road to parenting is a bit bumpy but not passable.

Looking At the Bright Side

A Dark Day Brings Light

November 23, 2011, was a dark day at my house, but yet it brought a lot of light to my mind. That is the day Julian was diagnosed with ADHD (combined) and traits of Asperger’s Syndrome. (This was later amended to a full diagnosis and he is now considered to be on the autism spectrum because Asperger’s was removed from the DSM-V.)

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It brought tears and peace at the same time. I finally had answers to so many questions. I wasn’t a bad mom, there was actually a reason he was doing all these things.

I finally had tools to help him. I could help him calm himself so he wouldn’t throw toys, hit his siblings or myself. I might even get dinner done on time some nights instead of stopping to deal with Julian’s meltdowns.

Losing Perspective

Somewhere in the middle of trying behavior charts, evaluations and basically bribing Julian to act appropriately, I’d forgotten the good things about him. He did have those, like every other kid.

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For example, Julian is so intelligent. For the most part, he’s always done well in math and science. He hates reading.

There is a bright side to having a kid with special needs. It changes you in ways you never thought possible. You may have learn a lot about the diagnosis (or more than one), but you’ll be able to spread awareness about it. I’ve become very vocal about ADHD and autism.

You can read my thoughts on the vaccination/autism debate in this post:

The Autism/Vaccine Debate

I’ve walked for a local organization for families of children with autism. I worked with kids with autism for almost five years, and I loved it. It makes it easier for me to deal with the struggles.

I know I’m far from alone because there are many families that have the same day to day issues that I do. This includes some of my friends.
I’ve learned that you have to be a different parent for each kid.

What works for Lily may not work for Julian. Cameron responds a lot differently to things than his siblings. We have had to adjust to Julian’s quirks and needs and become a lot more creative and open-minded. I’ve had to think on my feet a lot and outside the box a lot more.

Learning to Adjust

I never really went through the stage that some parents do in which they grieve what they imagined what their child would be able to do. Julian will still have a full life- he will just have a few bumps along the way.

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We are able to see the world through a different lens with Julian- slightly narrowed thinking, a dry sense of humor, ability to help with or without asking- he loves to help his dad and grandfather do “big guy stuff”. He does show emotions, but we are still working on empathy.

I have become tougher. I don’t see this as a terrible thing. I’ve learned to fight for what Julian needs and I will do that until he can do it on his own. I won’t let him be in the world on his own without knowing how to get help if he needs it and without the skills, he needs to navigate his issues.

We do have bad days as parents, with or without special needs kids. Looking at the bright side can help bring our focus back to the positivity around us- our kids.

Top Reasons Behind Eloping

There are many terrifying moments in parenting. I’ve seen a few- when you realize your child has a broken bone, all three kids get strep throat, and my personal nightmare: a child eloping.

Eloping is defined as :(according to Oxford Dictionary) sneaking off, slipping away

It’s most commonly seen in children with autism and can become dangerous if safeguards aren’t put in place. Even with those safeguards, things still happen, but all we can do is our best, right?

My biggest tip is, as always, know your kid. Each child is different, meaning triggers for eloping and other potentially dangerous behaviors. Some kids run because they are simply curious about something they see. (This was Julian’s issue.) Some run to escape a demand or request to do something they don’t want to. I saw this a lot while working with kids with autism. It may even be a combination of both.

From a personal perspective, this can get pretty scary. Julian developed this issue when he was much smaller and thankfully no longer does it. He would run off after a bird or something else he saw BUT didn’t see the car backing out of a space, almost hitting him. This happened twice before I started having a very tight grip on his little hand in parking lots.

Another tip is: have a plan. If you read A Parent’s Guide for Wandering and Missing Children you can find ways to plan for one of the biggest parenting nightmares. There are links to other helpful sites.

Once you have a plan, it’s time to think of why kids elope.

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Photo by jonas mohamadi on Pexels.com

Running Into Trouble

The main reasons for eloping, according to CDC

1. Wanting to get to something they want or find interesting- this can get really bad pretty fast, especially if your child is drawn to ponds, lakes and other sources of water. A situation can deteriorate if they are drawn to other things: moving cars, an animal, or just about anything that a child sees that draws their attention.

2. Wanting to escape something they don’t like/want to do. I’ve seen this a lot in my career- during ABA therapy, quite a few patients ran off because they didn’t want to try what they were being encouraged to do. Some kids ran, for example, because they didn’t want to eat what was being offered at meals.

3. To get out of a stressful situation- many kids with autism and/or sensory issues do not do well in loud and/or bright situations. They may run to get away from what is bothering them.

There isn’t really one best way to prevent eloping, I think it relies on a few different factors. 

  • Knowing your child’s triggers (if they have them) can help. If you know that your child is not a fan of loud noises, try to prepare your child before going into this kind of situation- we went to a local parade once and at the very end, there was a loud fire truck siren and Julian became very upset. We didn’t know that was coming and we gathered our things and left. About a month later, he went to a Monster Truck event and took headphones to block the noise. He actually fell asleep during the show!

This can be as simple as saying: “We are going to see Monster Trucks, they will be pretty loud. If it bothers you, please tell an adult.”

  • Let your child know (depending on their level of understanding) that running away from adults is very unsafe, but don’t terrify them with details of what can happen to them. This can create anxiety.
  • If your child is able to let themselves out of the home or other areas, it may be time to consider strong locks and an alarm if needed. This can save your child’s life.
  • If you can, try taking another adult with you on certain outings. This can decrease the chance of an elopement by having another set of eyes and feet, if needed.

I don’t have all the answers, but those are the tips I do have to prevent a potential tragedy.

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

 

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