Parents Are Key to Overcoming Behavioral Health Issues

Improving the lives of kids facing mental health issues – and their families – is key at Seattle Children’s.

Kenny Dooley is a Jedi Master.

A graduate of the Jedi Masters group therapy program at Seattle Children’s, 12-year-old Kenny is a wise practitioner of skills that help him cope with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one of the most common mental health problems in childhood.

“It’s difficult for kids like me to focus, learn and pay attention,” Kenny explains. “Sometimes we get bored in school. I wish more adults and kids understood what it’s like to have ADHD.”

Shelley Dooley, Kenny’s mom, relates to her son’s frustration. Feeling judged by their peers is one of the most trying aspects of life with a mental health disorder. “Some people think Kenny’s behavior is a choice,” she says. “I’m continuing to learn, and to do things differently as a parent, but I need the community to be supportive, too. I want people to understand that my son is more than the behavior in his challenging moments. He’s an amazing, energetic and kind kid who will help you do anything.”

Thanks to a team of mental health experts at Seattle Children’s – and with the support of his mom – Kenny is developing new skills and tools to overcome the challenges of living with ADHD. And in any given moment, Dooley is prepared to play the role of coach, cheerleader, advocate or crisis counselor.

“Parents are vital members of their child’s mental healthcare team,” says Dr. Kathy Melman, who treats children and adolescents with anxiety. “We see patients for one hour a week, but parents are with their kids 24/7. We teach families strategies for working through the difficult moments and ongoing challenges that interfere with living healthy, full lives.”

Number of children who experience a debilitating mental disorder: 1 in 5

In addition to participating in Kenny’s individual therapy sessions, Dooley attends parent support groups that run concurrently with group therapy sessions for kids. She has also called behavioral medicine support line several times since her son began treatment in first grade.

“I really value the family-focused approach at Seattle Children’s,” says Dooley. “The team provides direction for Kenny, and I receive support and validation for my own needs. They’re lifesavers.”

Life-changing care

When Ella Corcoran was a young child, her family thought she was “shy.” By kindergarten, she would talk freely at home, but couldn’t speak in other settings.

“I come from a family of introverts, but I was worried that Ella was suffering in some way,” recalls her mom, Leanne Corcoran. “It was like she wanted to be seen and heard, but she just couldn’t.” Corcoran and her partner, Rachel Ligtenberg, learned that Ella’s symptoms were signs of a rare form of anxiety known as selective mutism.

Ella’s anxiety severely impacted her childhood. She couldn’t join friends for play dates or sleepovers. One day in first grade, Ella was so afraid of going to school that she had a panic attack and couldn’t breathe. An ambulance rushed her to the nearest emergency room because her lips had turned blue.

The family sought help from therapists in private practice, but none would accept Ella’s Medicaid insurance plan. Finally, they were referred to Seattle Children’s.

“Dr. Kathy Melman changed our lives,” recalls Corcoran.

After one year of individual and group therapy, Ella began to find her voice outside of home. By second grade, she was reciting poetry in front of her classmates and participating in the school play. With help from Melman, Ella has worked through some setbacks along the way, and today the artistic 11-year-old loves to sing, play guitar and perform on stage.

“The transformation is simply amazing,” notes Corcoran. “Ella has developed better skills for coping with anxiety than most adults.”

Melman believes Ella’s family made the difference in the outcome. “The partnership with Leanne and Rachel was critical,” says Melman. “They participated in the anxiety group for parents, worked closely with Ella’s school to build understanding of selective mutism, and helped Ella become increasingly comfortable talking with her peers.”

Working through a crisis

Sometimes children and teens experience a mental health emergency that requires admission to our hospital. When a child is a danger to themselves or others – because of attempted suicide, severe aggression, complications from eating disorders or psychotic episodes – Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit (PBMU) provides life-saving intervention. After stabilizing the crisis, the care team focuses on helping the patient and family build coping skills to prevent a future crisis and developing a treatment plan for after the child leaves the hospital.

“Because the family dynamic is the single most important factor in a child’s recovery, we work hard to understand where the family has been – and where things have broken down – without judgment,” says Dr. Thomas Roesler, a child psychiatrist and medical director of the PBMU. “We help families understand the triggers for their child’s behavior and develop new ways of coping that will promote a healthy adjustment at home.”

A typical stay in the PBMU lasts about six days, after which families continue their child’s mental healthcare on an outpatient basis. Prior to a patient’s discharge from the hospital, the care team works diligently to schedule their first individual therapy appointment with a qualified provider at Seattle Children’s or in their home community.

“For most families, admission to the PBMU is one stop along the road to recovery,” says Dr. Kelly Schloredt, who, in her role as clinical director of the PBMU, supports the team of mental health professionals who guide patients and their parents through treatment. “An inpatient stay is often the beginning or the middle of the journey – it’s not the end. Treatment will likely continue for months or years after hospitalization.”

Seattle Children’s recently doubled the size of the PBMU from 20 beds to 41 beds to better meet the community need for inpatient psychiatric care. Schloredt says regional resources for inpatient mental health have diminished significantly during the past few years – especially for young children. As a result, families are increasingly turning to our hospital for help. Prior to the PBMU expansion, the unit waitlist held the names of 15 to 30 patients on any given day.

“It’s overwhelming for patients and families when we don’t have capacity,” says Debra Gumbardo, RN, MS, chief of Psycho-Social Services. “When families take that critical step from managing the crisis at home to seeking inpatient care, they often feel a sense of dread and isolation while they’re waiting. Many are exhausted by the time they reach this point. By doubling our capacity, we hope to significantly reduce wait times for admission to the PBMU.”

Shelley Dooley is hopeful that her son will never need inpatient treatment. But knowing the PBMU is available brings her tremendous peace of mind. “If we need inpatient care in the future, I know we’ll be in good hands,” says Dooley. “I am 100% confident in Seattle Children’s. And I know Kenny is going to be a very successful adult because of all the support we’ve received through the years.”

“I want people to understand that my son is more than the behavior in his challenging moments.”

Shelley Dooley, parent

Published in Connection magazine, Fall 2015