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 stay at home mom, 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

Guest Post with Sierra

Happy Friday! I’m bringing in a post from Sierra. She’s with Basic Invite and she was amazing to work with! Thank you, Sierra.
I graduated from university recently, and while I’m grateful I got my degree, college was a very difficult experience for me.

In the middle of my college career, I had to go see a psychologist for anxiety disorder and depression.

Dealing with anxiety and depression at the same time was hard, but I learned a lot about myself from this experience.

One thing that really helped me deal with my feelings was making things. Every so often I would paint or do origami and it really helped relieve my stress and fear.

As graduation loomed closer, I knew I wanted to send out graduation announcements to my friends and family.

By this time I had my mental health problems better under control, although I usually still felt uneasy and prone to sadness more often than normal.

I was also really worried about finding a job after graduation, where I would live, and everything else that comes with leaving school and becoming an adult.

Despite my worries, I decided to knuckle down and find some cute graduation invitations to send to my loved ones.

I googled “graduation invitations” and stumbled upon Basic Invite.

I really liked their designs.

I went with their vibrant anemone graduation invitation, shown below since I love flowers.

Although I must say, all their floral graduation invitations are pretty awesome.

Their graduation brunch invitations are cute too.

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What I really liked about Basic Invite was that I was able to edit the font and colors for the card.

I changed the background of the vibrant anemone invite to a lighter shade of blue I liked better, although I kept the font the same.

Designing the invitations was really therapeutic for me, like origami or painting. It kept me from feeling stressed.

I was knocking something important off of my to-do list.

I told my friends about Basic Invite and how I got to design my invites, and a couple of them tried it out too.

One of my friends really liked their elegant graduation invitations and used their sophisticated swash graduation invitation, seen below.

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They also have colored envelopes, so I chose an envelope that matched the background of my invite.

I ordered a sample from their site to make sure I liked how everything turned out, and it was perfect.

I placed an order for all the invitations I wanted the same day.

Designing my graduation invite with Basic Invite was one of the best choices I made at the end of my college career.

It was super fun and relaxing, and I got to show off my work to all of my friends!

If you need graduation invitations, I hope you’ll give Basic Invite a shot. I hope you love their products as much as I do.

 

Looking Into the Future- Autism in Adulthood

I think a lot. My kids give me plenty of topics to ponder: dating, clothes, impending puberty. One topic will remain on my mind for a very long time- how will having autism affect Julian as an adult? Will he need help with managing daily life, or will he be able to do everything on his own? He’s not great yet at self-advocacy, so how will this affect him when he needs his ADHD medications adjusted? Will he find someone that loves him?

Sometimes these thoughts keep me up at night. I have to remind myself that we can only move so fast in life and that right now, I am just trying to get Julian through the 7th grade. He’s currently fine on his meds and otherwise, has friends and is growing- he is finally over 5 feet tall. I think he will be as tall as me soon. (I am 5’2″, but to him, this is EVERYTHING)

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Letting Go of Your Baby Bird

Watching our kids grow up and move into their own lives is hard. My mom actually cried when I moved out. I often joke about being delighted when the kids are gone, but I will most likely be a sobbing mess when those days come. In Julian’s case, I have the feeling that I will be happy, but a new set of worries will begin. I won’t be able to help him as much as I can now. I am trying to teach him to speak up for himself in all aspects. He’s quiet and I worry that may hold him back or cause issues.

What about college? Julian has decided that he doesn’t want to go to college (see My Kids and College) and this is okay. For those whose kids want to go to college, remember that this is a time of growth and transition for everyone. Your child is about to be around a lot more people than they were around in high school, which equals more noise, smells, etc. This in itself can be an issue. The buildings are bigger, brighter, and further apart. This is something else to get used to.

College schedules are different. Making friends in college can be either difficult or easy, depending on your personality. In this case, it may be a bit more complicated. You, as a parent, may have to resist the urge to monitor their every step and wait for them to tell you everything they did in class, whether they are at a nearby community college or a thousand miles away.

However, some kids with autism struggle in college, mainly with organization. The extra free time can be an issue because they aren’t always sure how to maintain a routine. It can be hard just to get through the day- class, eating, homework and other essentials. It can be just as difficult to read social cues, as it was when they were children, and/or know what’s expected of them.

Most young adults age out of supports at age 22 (at the oldest), which means IEP, 504 plans, etc, are gone. There’s nothing to replace them. Transition planning usually starts around age 14 (depending on the state- Kentucky, for example, does start at 14- Julian will be a freshman). This is the time in which parents and teachers start planning for when the supports run out. The adjustment is still a big one.

The best idea for those who want to go to college with autism is to tap into organizational tools. This may consist of a planner, alarm clock, and most of all, be able to ask for support. Ask your college advisor for extra supports on campus- a group may be available, or other resources. Some of this information can be found on Child Mind

Autism Speaks provides a Transition Tool Kit for families. It can help you take the steps you need to ensure a smoother move into adulthood for you and your family.

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Decisions, Decisions

College isn’t an option for every child with autism. There are other options. Day programs for young adults are becoming more common and popular- they enable the young adult to get out and participate in the community and go home at night. Participants also learn life skills.

Payments are either covered through a waiver, insurance, a combination of both, self-pay, or other options. I highly recommend looking at different places and comparing before choosing one, and of course, taking a tour. These are usually an option no matter where your child is on the spectrum, but all programs are different.

Another option is hiring part or full-time caregivers. I have been a caregiver (more often called Direct Care Providers) and honestly, it was a lot of fun. I worked with a 13- year- old boy that lived about 5 minutes from me. He was a blast to work with and always kept me laughing.

The caregivers can come in your home, meet you and your child in the community, pretty much wherever you need them to. They can help your child learn skills like money management, social skills, life skills and a lot more. I used to take one client to lunch at least twice a week to work on both money and social skills.

A third option is a group home setting. Again, I recommend looking around and considering what you can afford and what you can get covered. This can create a sense of community for your child- everyone needs that in some form. In most of these settings, they are asked to complete chores, go on outings (fun times!) and have other things provided for them. This information is also from Child Mind

What is Love?

Everyone feels love- even those on the spectrum. I’ve never been able to grasp the idea that people who aren’t able to speak cannot feel love. Just because they can’t talk doesn’t mean they can’t express how they feel.

They still think and feel, they are just unable to vocalize it. One of my favorite kids was completely non-verbal but she would squeeze your arms to say “hello”, “goodbye” and to show she was happy.

Relationships can be a bit hard to manage while on the spectrum. Cues are hard to read and many hate small talk, the kind you would have on a first date. It can be hard to enjoy yourself in a loud, noisy place when you are overwhelmed.

It can be even harder to explain that you have autism because of the myths and stereotypes. Even touching, like holding hands, can be difficult. Some people think that those on the spectrum resemble robots because they don’t show how they feel when it can be the opposite.

Most want a romantic relationship, but it is difficult because they don’t know how. Relationships while on the spectrum can be successful with an understanding partner and a bit of work. You can find this information at The Atlantic

In Julian’s case, he hates hugs, so I am not sure how he will react to a girl hugging him. I’ve explained to him that if a girl hugs him and he gets angry, it’s going to hurt her feelings. I suggested that maybe he should step away and tell her that he doesn’t like hugs, that he would like a shoulder squeeze. He looked at me like I had six heads, so I’m not sure if it sunk in.

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Making Some Money

Working is an adventure and autism can sometimes throw a small speed bump into the process.

Finding a Job can help your child get on the path to finding a job that they can enjoy. There is a video on the page that is helpful.

There are issues that some run into while being employed. Two of the largest issues that workers on the spectrum face are the settings of the job itself (bright lights, noise, etc) and workplace bullying. Those can cause a lot of frustration, stress and even anxiety and depression. They can also cause the worker to leave their job unexpectedly.

Discrimination in the workplace is an issue and some have been fired as soon as they disclose that they have ASD. This is not only wrong, but it is also illegal. It’s usually tied in with complaints from co-workers and/or others, habits being seen the wrong way, or other workplace issues. This information can be read in more depth at The Art of Autism

The transition to adulthood is not an easy move for anyone involved- parents or kids. When ASD is involved, it doesn’t mean that the transition is impossible.

It means that we have to balance the need for letting go and still being nearby in case our child needs help. Maybe one night I will be able to shut these worries off and sleep. Maybe not? I’ll see in a few years.

Pics courtesy of Unsplash

My Career in Psychology

I am not entirely sure when I decided to go into psychology. As a kid, I wanted to be a meteorologist. I love watching weather reports, even to this day. If there’s a storm coming, I’m all over the weather reports. I probably would have gone into this had I not realized that there’s a lot of math involved. I hate math.

An Interesting Change

I realized that I love fashion. I love clothes, makeup and at one point, designing evening gowns. Unfortunately, I cannot construct clothing. I can sew by hand but forget a sewing machine. I ended up selling mine to my friend Stephanie’s mother. I’ve tried making clothes but it’s always ended in disaster.

My college roomie, Barbie (Barbara IRL) has her degree in Apparel Design and Merchandising. Before she moved to Omaha with her husband and became a stay at home mom, she was a tailor in a bridal shop.

Me? I started college at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) with the same major but got bored. In one of many long conversations with my grandmother before her death in 2002, she suggested that I change majors.

To what? I had an interest in psychology but really had no clue what to do with it. I put some thought into it and changed my major to Clinical Psychology soon after.

Moving Along as A Working Mom

Fast forward about five years to 2007, after a marriage, changing schools and two kids, I finally graduated from Spalding University with a Bachelor of Arts. Again, what was I going to do with it? I had planned to get a Master’s to become a child therapist, but having the boys had kind of halted that path. I didn’t think that I could pull it off. I figured in the meantime, I would work and see what I liked.

The universe laughed. Lily was born in February 2008.

It was 2012 before I even looked at the GRE. If you’ve never heard of it, the GRE is the Graduate Record Exam and my biggest nightmare. I hate standardized testing and this included statistics. Ugh. I didn’t do great, but I also didn’t do horribly. My scores expired in 2017. I took this intending to get into a Master’s of Arts in Teaching program at Bellarmine University, but I didn’t make it past the conditional admission, which lasted a semester. PRAXIS testing was even harder.

Between 2007 and 2012, I worked at two mental health facilities, an outpatient substance abuse facility and learned a lot in the process. You can read Real Stories of a (Former) Mental Health Worker to get some insight into one of those jobs. That one taught me a lot about myself as a person and a mother. There are some jobs that you cannot leave unchanged- that was one.

Wandering A Bit

I left the job I loved the most in 2015, after Jake’s death. I have not been able to find something I loved that much since. I have worked at an inpatient substance abuse facility, direct support worker, a program assistant at a large hospital, and right now I have a new job as a caregiver mentor, but I don’t know as of yet if I love it. The jury is still out.

To be honest, I feel kind of lost, career-wise. I’m not sure I will find something I loved as much as that job again. I felt like I was where I was supposed to be every single day I was there, whether I was working around the hospital or on the unit I eventually transferred to. I’m not really sure what my next move will be. I don’t like not being sure of things. It creates anxiety, and we all know I am not a fan.

What do I love? Writing. That was something I always wanted to do as a kid. Funny enough, Lily loves to write and draw. I’m glad to see that one kid has inherited my artistic abilities. The boys could care less.

What Keeps Me In Psychology?

The ability to help people. I’ve always liked that. I loved being able to help the kids I worked with. They were a blast, except for the bad days. Those were to be expected. Watching a 15-year-old finally go to a great foster family was super rewarding. The funny stories also help, because this field is full of it.

Also, knowing that all my hard work does pay off. In a way, this blog is a branching out of everything I have learned and done while working. I don’t think I will leave the field entirely, but I’m not sure what is next. I really don’t think graduate school is an option. My short term memory was affected by my stroke. I don’t want to go and not do well.

Do I Have Any Regrets?

None. Not at all. I went into psychology knowing I wouldn’t make a million unless I got a Ph.D. I have no interest in that. I’m not in this field for the money. I’m here for the people. That’s the best reason that anyone who wants to go into psychology or any similar profession should be in it.

I have learned a lot and had even more fun. That is what matters most. The piece of paper on my living room wall was just the beginning.

Pic courtesy of Pinterest

The College Mental Health Strain

College is a time of huge transformation- many freshmen have never lived away from home. If your child is going to a college/university far away from home, it can be an intense change. This is to be expected. Everyone looks forward to this move but not many anticipate the feelings that may appear when it happens.

I am years away from sending a kid to college, but Cameron starts high school in August. I AM NOT READY.

The Big Move

College does have its good points- so much freedom! You can pick the time of your classes (kinda), when you come in at night (let’s get real if you come in) and many other choices. I loved not having classes before 11 am.

This was fantastic until I transferred universities and the only classes left towards my major (Clinical Psychology) were all at 8 AM at the new university.

UGH. Throw in two toddlers and things get outrageously fun.

The Factors Add Up

However, things can get stressful. There’s a lot of pressure. Grades are a thing. Scholarships depend on grades, as does most of the financial aid. Many college students work. Working plus studying can create stress. If you have other factors adding to it- kids, issues with parents, etc, things can seem almost unbearable.

Another factor is coming into college with a mental health condition, either diagnosed or not. The extra stress can exacerbate these illnesses and contribute to “breaks”, in which someone loses touch with reality and almost always needs hospitalization. Many of those with severe mental illness (SMI) have the first break around college age. A break can also mean a severe depressive episode.

This is just a short list of mental health conditions that are seen in many college-age students:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-injury
  • ADHD
  • Addiction/other Substance Abuse Disorders

This information can be found at: Affordable Colleges Online

Colleges and Universities Have Options for Care

Your child has an option right on campus- may have an office for mental health care. It’s usually free or very low cost. Some take insurance, some don’t, depending on the school.

They are run by graduate-level psychology students and faculty. The major downside is that they can only offer so much help due to their limited training, hours and other factors. These offices can, however, refer patients out to local therapists or other locations like the ER in case of emergency.

Another option is a more difficult one- reducing hours or even taking a semester off. This can mean a loss of financial aid in many cases. Nobody wants that. Many don’t want to take time off, even a semester, especially not for mental health issues. It makes the condition come out in the spotlight.

Some colleges and universities are seeing the issue and doing more to help- therapy dogs during finals week, encouraging students to seek help earlier instead of waiting. They are also encouraging students to look out for their friends. This can be a huge help. Some are including self-care topics in their freshmen seminars.

From (Not So) Far Away

What can you do?

  • Talk to your child. Ask how things are really going. Let them know it’s okay to struggle a bit. It doesn’t have to be easy all the time.
  • Encourage your child to look out for their friends- not like they already don’t. This is a different kind of looking out.
  • Remind them they can come to you if they don’t feel okay. You’re here to help them.

College can be a great experience. It’s full of change, fun and sometimes really dumb things. Growth is scary. That’s why our baby birds need to know they can always come back to us.

Pictures courtesy of Pixels

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For further reading: Learning and Performing Under Pressure

Have you had a child go off to college? How was it?

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