Child Study and Treatment Center connects families

When Tessa Bowen attended her first retreat at the Child Study and Treatment Center in the summer of 2020, what impacted her the most was hearing from other parents of the hospital’s pediatric patients.

“I was blown away by hearing the previous patients talk about ‘This was my experience, and I’m so much better for it’ because I just had so much guilt as parent,” said Bowen, describing how she felt admitting her then 8-year-old daughter for inpatient psychiatric care. Her daughter had been admitted to CSTC the previous January for several behavioral health conditions that included autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, depression and more.

“After attending there not only did I feel more at ease about our decision to seek help this way, and to have our daughter there, but I also felt a little bit more at ease about this is what we need to do to prepare for discharge,” said Bowen.

Now a former CSTC parent — her daughter discharged in late 2020 — Bowen returned virtually to talk to 10 current families at the hospital’s fifth family retreat in June, fitting right into one of the key focus areas of the events.

“The reason we do it is really to provide an opportunity for families to strengthen their sense of connection with each other, their connection with other families who have been through similar processes and struggles, and their connection with us as treatment providers,” said Dr. Ed Morris, a psychologist and the family specialist at CSTC.

Families at the retreat heard from the CSTC chief executive officer and medical director, along with education teams at the Oak Grove and Firwood schools. A CSTC team of a counselor, nurse and clinician also taught de-escalation strategies to be used with children at home, supplementing more specific strategies that families discuss in family therapy sessions at CSTC, in which clinical teams share what’s working well for patients in the hospital and how to expand those successes after discharge in the community and at home.

Ultimately, the goal is to help families be prepared and ready for the discharge process, so helping strengthen those connections is a vital part of that, Morris said. “The more you can be connected with the different aspects of your child’s treatment, the more that we can help you feel prepared for the discharge process, the more thoughtful questions you can ask and the more information you can get.”

Former CSTC parents like Bowen also shared how COVID-19 restrictions shaped discharge planning, and what families could expect for resources; she emphasized that CSTC is still a resource for patients even after discharge.

“We’ve called several times just to chat with staff when our daughter’s been in crisis, and she’s been able to talk it out, and we’ve been able to work things out, so it’s been nice to have that fall back. She’s having a bad day, she calls CSTC, talks to a staff member, and things are magically better for her,” Bowen said.

One of the intangible effects of the retreats is simply letting families know that they’re not alone, and that they can find empathy in the other families attending. Families express gratitude for being in an environment where people around them understand what they’re going through, and aren’t judging them for past difficulties and challenges, Morris said.

“Having a child with these kinds of mental and emotional and behavioral disorders can be very, very alienating,” said Bowen. “I know that in the four years that we dealt with it on our own before CSTC, we shut ourselves off from our friends because we didn’t think our friends would understand. I personally lost family members because they didn’t understand … it was just very alienating. When we did finally start reaching out to some of our friends, the understanding and the support was overwhelming; so many more people understand than we expected.

She encouraged family members, “Don’t close yourself off. Yes, you are going to lose some friends and family because not everyone understands what this is like, but I promise that so many more people understand than we think.”