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

Humor from Gordon Ramsay

Many of us are harder on ourselves than we are on others.

I’m guilty of this. If someone I know is anxious, sad, whatever, I’m gentle and encouraging. I might even give a pep talk.

(Thanks, Granddad.)

When it comes to being that way towards myself…nope, not so much. Isn’t this weird?

I’m working on self-talk and changing negative thoughts in therapy. The meds also help.

Are you hard on yourself but gentle with others? Let’s discuss.

How Do Co-Morbid Disorders Operate?

It can feel draining, to say the least, to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. This can feel even more so if you have more than one. Sometimes these disorders operate independently of the other OR you can show symptoms of both regularly.

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Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

Stay with me..

The term co-morbid (according to Lexico/OED) means that a person has two or more conditions simultaneously. In my terms, it means that a person has two diagnoses at the same time- for example, many people with addiction (of any kind) also have anxiety, depression or another mental health diagnosis. That diagnosis can lead to addiction. Some people aren’t aware of this until being seen for a substance abuse issue, like going into a rehabilitation program. This can also apply to medical terms – for example, I have rheumatoid arthritis and migraines. Both are chronic conditions and on bad days, I’m in pain and have a migraine. (This is no fun at all, but thankfully, it doesn’t happen much, it’s usually one or the other.)

In fact, many of those diagnosed with depression also have another mental health diagnosis, usually an anxiety-related disorder. It’s thought that both disorders have similar mechanisms in the brain so that they appear together. Some co-morbid disorders can be harder to treat because they do show up at the same time. The symptoms can be more severe than they would be in a single diagnosis. More information can be found at NAMI

Things can get a bit complicated with multiple diagnoses. When you are seeing a roster of specialists, sometimes things can slip through the cracks- medication refill issues, remaining compliant with medications and other treatment, etc. All prescribing doctors need to know all of the medications you are taking so that there are no interactions. Some interactions can be serious or deadly.

Example: Cameron had a severe migraine for two days. I called his headache doctor and she was hesitant to prescribe steroids (which are commonly used) because he has SVT. She didn’t want to take the chance of the steroids causing an episode. I appreciated her concern about this- nobody wants to go to the ER for an episode.

It’s important to pay attention to your symptoms so that if things change, you can get help as soon as possible to lessen the impact on your body and life.

Some of this information can be found on Very Well Mind

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There isn’t a lot of research out there on co-morbid disorders, most research is based on a single disorder. This leaves a lot of room for more research and understanding how disorders go together.

It’s 2020. I’m sure this is coming for us and will allow those with co-morbid disorders to live happier lives.

 

 

Book Review: “Prozac Nation”

I meant to start book reviews again in January but none of the books I read were review material- until I re-read “Prozac Nation”.

The author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, died in late January. She was 52. This is one of the best mental health-related books I’ve ever read.

Prozac Nation cover

Who do I think this book is intended for?

Anyone who wants to try to get a deeper understanding of what it’s really like to live with mental illness.

What did I like about this book?

Her honesty.

What didn’t I like about this book?

Hard to tell. She was a great author.

Plot:

Tells the story of her mental illness starting at age 11 but gives background all the way back to toddlerhood.

Elizabeth’s view of her life and those around her as she grows and changes- she becomes aware of the effects if her mental illness. She describes her attempts to treat her diagnosis. She also attempts suicide.

The story ends with her being healthy and happier. Elizabeth was one of the first people to be prescribed Prozac after the FDA approved it.

Quote that I liked: “Sometimes I wish I could walk around with a “handle with care” sign stuck to my forehead.”

I understand this so much. It would be nice to have this kind of sign where people can see it.

If you want to read more book reviews:

Fall To Pieces

Fight Club

Being a Bystander: When is it Dangerous?

Everyone’s been in a crowd. We observe a lot of things as we walk through or stand.

Noises. Light. Smells. Where our other companions are if we aren’t alone.

What about the behavior of others?

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Why What Others Do Matters

I’d usually tell you to mind your own and keep moving but in a few cases, that actually may be a bad idea.

Being out in public, alone or with others, requires a lot of thought. Planning on where to sit in a restaurant- for example, my mom won’t sit with her back to the door because she can’t see what’s happening as others come in. Or walking alone after dark- many of us won’t if we don’t have to. I get very apprehensive when walking in parking garages, day or night, but then, I’ve probably listened to too many podcasts.

We can’t control the actions of others, as much as we would like. Sometimes, however, we can try to stop a situation before it happens or gets completely out of hand.

If you’ve ever seen “What Would You Do?”, you may understand my previous sentences. The show is about looking at what you would do in certain situations in public- a domestic dispute, discrimination, a lost and hungry child, and other examples. The people don’t know they are being tested until a certain point.

Obviously, if a fight is occurring, there’s always the chance that others will join, just to get on it. Some even might record it, like you would see on social media or a site like Worldstar. What you don’t see often is someone trying to stop the fight. It takes a lot of courage to step in like that. You’re risking your safety, legal record and potentially your life by doing so.

But what happens when someone doesn’t step in OR ignores what’s going on?

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A Psychology Lesson for Today’s Crowds

Let me tell you the story of Kitty Genovese.

Kitty was a young woman living alone in New York City. She was murdered in her own apartment by a man she barely knew. I know this sounds pretty common, but stay with me.

As she was being attacked outside her apartment, neighbors could hear loud noises and screams but nobody, not one single person, bothered to check on her or call the police to report what they were hearing. Kitty fought back, but still died the night of her attack.

When the police finally showed up, they questioned everyone nearby. Most said that they thought someone else would make the phone call to the police that could have potentially saved Kitty’s life. This led to what is called “the bystander effect”- the presence of others discouraging someone from intervening in an emergency situation. The more bystanders that are involved, the less likely it is for someone to provide help. The researchers found that the bystander effect is a combination of two factors: diffusion of responsibility and social influence.

Today, many high schools and colleges promote speaking up when they see something wrong- as the police department in Louisville says, “If you see something, say something.” This can be as simple as asking what is going on or that help is coming, and it may break up the assault or another occurrence. An active bystander is most effective when they assume that they are the only person that will do something.

This information is courtesy of Psychology Today

Photos via Unsplash

What are your thoughts on the bystander effect? Have you ever stepped up in a situation that someone needed help?