I asked Maria Brown, M.S., BCBA, who is a Behavior Analyst at BNI to write this guest blog for Mental Health Awareness Month. I thought she would have invaluable input!
The Elizabeth Lee Black School at the Barber National Institute (BNI) has a unique program that treats children with dual diagnosis. This program is the Children’s Mental Health Partial Hospitalization program (CMHPHP). The individuals enrolled in this program have a developmental disability as well as a Mental Health diagnosis. The mental health challenges this program treats include anxiety, conduct disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other mood disorders. It can be particularly difficult to find appropriate treatments and interventions that adapt to the abilities and individual needs of these children.
This past year has been a challenge to all of us, considering COVID-19 restrictions, remote instruction, and all the precautions necessary for everyone to stay safe in this pandemic. Individuals with a mental health disorder can find these changes and restrictions even more difficult. Many children who have never had a mental health disorder are finding themselves experiencing emotional challenges during this pandemic. With all these changes to routine and environment, it does not need to be said that the children in the BNI CMHPHP have had unexpected changes in their mood that effect their overall functioning and mental health.
Despite these challenges, these children have come back to programing with more skills, better coping abilities, and supports that they would not have had access to if the COVID-19 pandemic had not occurred. During remote instruction, our children have learned how to attend to instructors, screens, and their parents to receive Mental Health treatment and educational instruction. Children who normally cannot sit for more than a few minutes have developed patience through technological issues and have increased their ability to complete work more independently. Our students have worked through and overcome sensory issues with wearing masks and more frequent cleaning and sanitizing procedures. We have even adapted to a different way to greet others, using elbow bumps in place of hive fives or hugs. This physical contact can be especially important for our children with mental health needs to keep their spirits high and support their emotional needs.
The most impressive positive effect of this pandemic is the increase in the children’s flexibility and ability to adapt to change. They have dealt with unexplainable stay home orders, return to in person instruction, transitions to hybrid instruction, and return to full programing. Most of our children have done this with very little disruption to their mental health symptoms or increases in disruptive of unsafe behaviors. Much of this success is attributed to the parents of the children in the program. These parents have learned skills teachers and therapists use in the classroom that they would not normally experience. Teachers, therapists, and parents have worked together to help the children develop replacement skills and work through emotional outbursts. This pandemic has brought many challenges to everyone, but for the children in the BNI’s CMHPHP we can also claim some success for the children and their parents in developing skills that will be lifelong tools to battle mental health issues and increase their success in the community.
Maria Brown is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst who has worked at the Barber National Institute for the past 19 years. Her focus is helping students’ social emotional health and developing lifelong skills. Maria has presented on several topics in the Special Education field and is currently dedicated to helping train future Registered Behavior Technicians and Board-Certified Behavior Analysts.