Mental health “workers” are chronically overworked, underpaid, and not appreciated. “Workers,” given a variety of job titles, are the day-to-day staff who work in group homes and residential treatment facilities, and provide some in-home services. Unlike licensed clinicians and supervisors they’re in the trenches with us and our kids. They’re often just as exhausted as we are.
A few summers ago Natasha was one of our Intensive In-Home services workers. She was absolutely wonderful and dedicated to our success. She was on call 24-7 and when Devon flew into a rage she would hurry over, once rolling straight out of bed in her pajamas. “You go on and do your stuff,” she would say waving me away. “I’ll take care of him.” Natasha knew how much control Devon had over our family during his rages. It was debilitating, keeping me from my job and Devon’s siblings from soccer practice. Natasha was determined to put a stop to it. Day-after-day she spent hours shut in the garage or a back room with Devon while he screamed and raged.
While this respite breathed some life back into me, Natasha burnt out before my eyes. She was working 60+ hours a week plus taking paperwork home every night. Her employer was sometimes ‘late’ on her paychecks and she was over loaded with clients.
It’s a sad truth we must face: even the most well-intentioned worker doesn’t have the capacity to give our child the quality care they otherwise would if they’re burnt out.
Here are some ways you can counteract mental health worker burn out and make sure you child receives the highest quality of care possible.
Be Kind–Be polite. Often these workers can’t control the things that are upsetting you so it’s unfair to yell at them. Compliment them when you’re impressed with their work, or even just to tell them you like their new haircut. Offer the in-home workers a cool drink and snack. It is these in-the-field, on-the-ground workers that can make a huge difference in the quality of services your child receives so investing kindness is well worth it.
Do Your Research–Carefully research the agencies you receive services from. In most cases, the ones that can “get you in right away” are the ones to steer clear of. A long waiting list, or at least a few weeks wait for an intake appointment, bodes well for the quality of service you can expect. Ask for referrals from your pediatrician. It can be difficult to find people to ask for personal recommendations when you are first starting to get services, but once you’re “in the system” you’ll find yourself sitting in a lot of waiting rooms chatting with other parents. Take advantage of these opportunities to ask about their experience with various agencies even if you aren’t currently looking to switch services.
Demand Quality Service–Your first priority is your child. Don’t accept sub-standard services! When you first start services with any provider they hand you a stack of papers that outline your rights and the policy to file complaints. I used to dump those in the trash as I walked out of the building, but now I know how valuable they are. You need to know what you are entitled to and what procedures to follow if you need to escalate a complaint. If it becomes necessary, switch agencies or providers in order to get better services. Also check for a parent advocate organization in your area. They can refer you to services and will send an representative with you to meetings to advocate on your behalf.
Whenever you can, advocate for better working conditions for mental health workers. Our kids are only going to be safe if workers are qualified, well-trained, and fairly compensated. Not long ago, there was a riot in a psych facility in my area and the workers were blamed for not handling the situation better. I wrote an op-ed suggesting that we’re asking too much of these entry-level, hourly employees and that working conditions must be improved. You can read my full op-ed here: Charlotte Observer/Don’t blame workers for psych center woes