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

Hobbies for Everyone

The past few months have somewhat forced us to find more things to do with our spare time.Netflix and Hulu can take up some time, but it’s not healthy to stare at a screen all day.Β  I’ve started making crafts again, mainly for the kids, plus one that will be a wedding present in early October. I’m even working on my cooking skills and my smoke detector is getting a break.

I Got A Little…A LOT Bored

Unlike most people, my work doesn’t close. I work part time at a sober living facility in Indiana (about 30 minutes from home) as a behavioral health technician. I work 4 days a week, so I still have time to do other things. In the beginning of the pandemic, I watched a TON of Netflix. “Breaking Bad” took less than a week to finish. I even did Netflix Review: β€œTiger King” . It’s complete trash to watch but so hilarious. I also read a few books, cleaned my house and played with the cats. I wanted to do something at least somewhat productive. The kids were in school online and I felt the need to create things.

Clearly, these were made for Lily. The pink box is for earrings and other small things. It was supposed to be a pencil box, but I ordered the wrong size. The letters sit on top of her cube set. I also bought a piece of art from a friend and it hangs on her wall. Lily went to some art classes and her work hangs in her room.Β 

We will not discuss how much I spent shopping online.

Hobbies are important, they give us an outlet to express ourselves and have fun while doing it.

Besides crafting, coloring and writing, I have also started small doodles. I like to draw but don’t always know what I want to draw, so I went on Pinterest to get ideas. I have a section on my “Creative Things” board of ideas. I already have a sketchbook. Matthew got me a drawing set for our 15th wedding anniversary on 9/10/20. My sketches aren’t always the best, but I enjoy it.

I still do yoga most days, even if it’s only 10 minutes. It helps with stiffness and it’s good for you. The yoga studio that I went to Yoga for Recovery for has reopened, but I don’t think they are bringing that class back. I’m not sure yet whether I want to try another class there or try a different studio.

Need Some Ideas?

I highly suggest Pinterest as a good place to start. It’s full of ideas that can get you started on a new hobby.

Some hobbies include:

  • puzzles (this requires a lot of patience and time, neither of which I possess)
  • painting (walls, pictures, whatever sounds good)
  • baking/cooking (I can get the minimum done cooking wise, but baking? Nope.)
  • clothing construction (fancy wording for making clothes for yourself and/or other people) or tailoring (hems, buttons, zippers, etc)
  • exercise (this has no real limit, try something new or get more into something you currently enjoy)
  • writing (writing in a journal, poetry, short novels, blogging..)
  • mental wellness (meditation, self-care, therapy)
  • playing cards/games (online or in person with a select few people)
  • online watch parties or just watching movies/TV on your own
  • reading (old faves, new books you are excited about, a whole different genre/author)
  • making a pandemic time capsule (newspapers, pics, small items, etc)
  • finally finishing that baby book (I may get to this one at some point, but not today) or other projects
  • home improvement (repairs, painting, new sheets/towels, etc)
  • try something new (podcasts, clothes, food, etc)
  • helping others however you can (I can’t do the AFSP walk this year, but I will do the virtual version)

Most of these activities are free or cheap. I would check with stores, organizations, and libraries for your specific needs. Some libraries are starting to open up, slowly. The library system in Louisville offers curbside services for pickup after you reserve books online, for example. I’m a huge fan. There are inexpensive ways to do almost everything on this list.

We are all in this together, no matter where we are. Stay safe and try to have fun.

There’s a Threenager Online

Welcome to year THREE of ShortstackBlogs!

I have three teens (or almost) so I figured the title would be fitting.

It’s been a weird year so far and here we are in August. I’m almost afraid to see what happens next.

Three years ago, my very first post came out. Thankfully, my writing has improved greatly since then. I’ve written about many topics in parenting and mental health, some were hard to write. The book reviews have also been fun, and I may bring back a version of Song Lyric Saturday.

I started this blog two years after one of the biggest losses of my life and I can only hope that my posts have helped someone get any kind of help they need. That’s the main mission of this blog, because I don’t want anyone else to grieve like I did.

I’ve had to change my writing schedule several times due to thyroid surgery, flares, and jobs. I even took a break for a month last year. September is a hard month for me, I may do the same this year.

Physically, I’m doing okay. I’ll be seeing my rheumatologist soon. I’ve got three years and seven months sober…yay!

Emotionally, I am so glad that Prozac exists. Without it, I’m not sure I would be functional. I sweat a lot as a side effect, but I can live with that. I’m still in therapy.

Boys at a trampoline park for Julian’s 14th birthday..no worries, we were safe

Kids are doing okay. Lily really struggled at first with social distancing, but has been doing better. Julian is not happy about starting high school online but he understands this is way out of my control. He’s not a fan of masks, but he wears one. Cameron is enjoying his sleep.

Besides working, I’ve been doing craft stuff, watching a lot of Netflix, taking Lily to appointments with her dietician and OT, and some other things.

Lily getting a medal for completing her bike class πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘

All I can do is my best, right?

I’ve enjoyed watching this blog grow along with my kids.

Stay safe, healthy and keep reading!

A Parent’s Guide to Screen-Free Activities

It seems as if our kids were born with the ability to work a tablet, computer and/or phone.

Or is it just my kids?

It’s a well-known fact that most kids are very attached to anything with a screen and a keyboard, so I’ll spare all of us the research. The question is, how do we get our kids AWAY from the screen?

*pause*

*crickets*

Sigh

There’s Fun Beyond The Screen

I promise there is.

Our kids might not see this, especially if they’re teens and love Netflix, but there’s really a whole world out there. I have a kid on the autism spectrum, so this is double the fun.

Tips for getting your child off the screen:

  • Have another, more fun, activity lined up. This one is pretty obvious. It’s a clear winner at my house. Know your kid- what do they like? What is something you know will interest them for a couple hours (or however long) to keep them off the screen and engaged? Try something new, you never know what might get their minds going. At my house, this includes nerf guns, parks, walks and simply telling Julian to ride his bike.
  • Find apps with built-in timers. Some apps have these and automatically shut off after a certain amount of time and then the fun part- making sure your kid doesn’t go straight into another app.
  • Find a stopping point. This works wonderfully with kids who do not do well with interruptions or transitions. If you can have them stop at a certain episode, level or other points, it may be easier for them to stop. It can be super frustrating to have to stop in the middle of something.
  • Discuss consequences and follow through. Every parent knows that kids need consequences. If your child doesn’t follow through with your rules on not stopping, limits, etc., then it is time for a consequence.
  • Try limiting your own screen time. Look at how much time you spend on your phone/tablet.
  • Ban electronics at mealtimes. Some families allow electronics at the dinner table, which limits conversation at the main time of the day that everyone is together.

A note for parents of kids with autism: This can be a special kind of challenge because some kids use iPads to communicate, some behaviors can be stopped (short-term) by handing the child a device, and it can also be used as a reinforcer for good behavior.

Also, some kids with autism are great with computers. You may have to get outside assistance to modify the behaviors your child has, depending on the severity. This information is from Psych Central

Alternatives to The Screen

This is where the fun comes in- what can kids do besides play or watch things on a screen?

Plenty. Here are some ideas.

  • Read a book
  • Draw/color (there are SO MANY awesome coloring books out there)
  • Painting rocks (check out Pinterest)
  • Go through old clothes/toys to donate
  • Take a walk, go for a run, ride a bike
  • Picking apples, other fruits
  • Plant a garden
  • Birdwatching
  • Learn a new skill/hobby
  • Watch the clouds

It can be hard to put down the screen at first, but the memories you make as a family are definitely worth it.

Do you have any activities to add? List them in the comments!

Pics courtesy of unsplash