by Terry Rogers
What began as a mother’s effort to get help for her children led to the creation of Champions for Children’s Mental Health, a child mental health agency now located in the Milford Wellness Village. Barbara Messick, Executive Director, explained that when her son was two, she was basically a prisoner in her home because she could not take him to the grocery store with her.
“I spent years upon years trying to find services for my own children, mainly my middle son,” Messick said. “He had been kicked out of daycare. They told me he was never going to make it in school, things like that, so you try to find help. You go to your pediatrician, and they are like “well, come back in six months. He spoke very well for just being two, so well I just knew he would be a politician. He was a runner, so I couldn’t go to Walmart to get groceries because I had an infant in a car seat and a four year old. When he darted off, what was I supposed to do? Run after him and leave the other two or just let him go in the parking lot. Either way, it was going to be a DCF call.”
Messick stated that if her mother or her husband at the time did not go with her, she could not leave the house. She tried specialists and experts who began telling her that there was something wrong with her, that she was a bad mom and that she wanted something to be wrong with her son. She started believing them because, as she said, they were the experts.
“Come to find out, it wasn’t me, it was more the state did not have services for children his age,” Messick said. “So rather than telling me that, they simply put it all on me. Then, the state got a grant for mental health services for kids under seven and we were the first family to get home based parent-child interaction therapy and that started my journey with child mental health. It worked so well because they were in our home. They were dealing with the issues right where they occurred, not in an office. In an office, my kid could behave for 15 or 20 minutes, but when we got home and I am trying to cook dinner or give baths, it was so different. They came in and they did not work with just him, they worked with all three of my kids. Because my husband at the time was a commercial fisherman, he was never home, and I was really a single mom.”
After a few months of therapy, the family began to venture out into the community and her son began to learn the right skills to deal with his mental health issues in public. After graduating from the program, Messick took her children to DisneyWorld, something she could never have done before the therapy.
“I was used to being a prisoner in my home,” Messick said. “But here I was in Disneyworld with my three kids. And they got compliments on their behavior. Yes, I will preach that service to anyone who wants to listen. For any mom or dad who has to take care of a child and have been made to feel like they are so horrible because of their behavior to let them know there is help out there.”
The family was such a success story, Messick was asked to share her story. Initially, she said absolutely not because she did not do well with public speaking, explaining that speaking in front of people scared her to death. They asked her to think about it and she did, remembering that it was not long ago that she could not even leave her house and now she was getting compliments at DisneyWorld which can be stressful for families who do not have a child with mental illness.
“So, I started doing some public speaking and, in 2012, the department offered me a contract to do work with families who were in similar situations as we were, actually working with the same program,” Messick said. “I was like, okay. I was going through a divorce so it worked for me because I could work my schedule around my kids. It was just wonderful. So, I started with that and I loved it. This wasn’t what I wanted to do, I was in school for occupational therapy, but I fell in love with it once I started doing it.”
Eventually, the state asked Messick if she could create a service in Delaware that offers families who have kids with mental health disorders or diagnoses peer support using her own experiences. She agreed and Champions for Children’s Mental Health came to life.
“I worked with the state and developed family peer support based on my own experiences,” Messick said. “I created what would have helped me if it had been available. What I wish I would have had when I needed it. We provide what the family needs when they need it. If they need a shoulder to cry on, we got you, we can do that, we will likely cry with you. But once the tears are done, we will create a plan to help you move forward because we are not going to stay in this low place.”
A lot of what the program does is help people navigate through the many systems that provide help for children with mental health. The school system is a huge advocacy, and they do a lot of IEP meetings, teaching families that it is not an “us vs. them” issue. They are the bridge that helps families understand their rights and responsibilities. They also help professionals understand that the parents are not trying to be right or difficult, but they simply do not understand why their child is still having problems when they have had a plan for six years. Messick does not call it mediation because that is not what they do, but more a support system.
“You walk into a room for an IEP and they have a whole table full of people and you are just one person,” Messick said. “We do a lot of roleplays before we go, making sure they know what is going to happen. We also make sure they represent themselves appropriately, like don’t show up in your pajamas. We have a list of questions, and we go with them so if they get overwhelmed, we can ask for a break for a few minutes. We get them back on track saying “did you want to cover your list or do you want to wait til next time?” So, it is just that extra support.”
In addition to the family supports provided by her agency, Messick explained they also try to find natural supports, so the family does not have to depend on someone getting paid to help them. They ask what support system is already in place and they often hear that the parents have no one. Messick explained they then ask who the mom or dad would call if they got a flat tire or if their child was having a meltdown. Often, the response is a grandparent, someone from church or a best friend.
“Our next response is okay, let’s get your best friend Sally over here and see how she can help when moments get hard,” Messick said. “That doesn’t mean Sally has to come over every time Johnny has a meltdown, maybe she can just take him for a half hour to decompress the situation. We are dealing with a pretty intense situation right now and the mom is like “I cannot even got to the bathroom, he comes with me.” So, we had her paint just one fingernail a day. Just a few seconds each day and when all ten are painted, we are going to celebrate because even though that is a small success, it is a success.”
When a child receives a mental health diagnosis, parents are often very frightened, especially if they hear a diagnosis like bipolar disorder as that can be devastating, Messick stated. However, if a child is diagnosed with ADHD, parents are less concerned, even thought ADHD can cause extreme symptoms that are similar to bipolar disorder. Messick stated that all three of her children have been diagnosed with a form of mental illness, although her middle son was the one who manifested symptoms more severely. Her daughter, a straight-A student, began self-harming, slipping into depression and isolating herself. Her oldest son was diagnosed with a rare illness that causes him to be severely immunocompromised which leads to anxiety.
“The child who they told me would not make it through Kindergarten will be 16 in July,” Messick said. “He is at First State Military Academy where he is starting a grief group and about to be promoted to Staff Sergeant. My daughter created a presentation on her own entitled “Through a Child’s Eyes: My Journey with Mental Health,” explaining what it is like to be a child with mental health. If there are adults in the audience, I present with her and tell those in the audience the perspective of a parent.”
Messick explained that the first time she spoke, she expected just a few people in the audience and there were more than 400. Some of them were the same professionals who told her that she was the problem, that she wanted something to be wrong with her son.
“And that was part of the story I was sharing,” Messick said. “I actually lost it, I was in complete tears and could not talk for a minute, but I got through it and then bolted off the stage. I had so many professional coming up to me and thanking me for letting them see how harmful their worlds were. And even the ones that had told me those things said, “I hope you weren’t talking about one of our meetings,” and I said “well, yeah, you did not sugarcoat it for me so I am not sugarcoating it for you.”
Other things they have provided for families are as simple as a family portrait. They held a Christmas party with Santa and one of the family service providers was a photographer. The family could get a photo with Santa as well as a family photo, something some of these families had never had. Sometimes, they simply provide a game to help the family start a family game night. Many have never attempted games because of a child’s mental illness which could cause them to have a breakdown if something goes wrong. She stated that some of these families have never even sat down to dinner together because it was impossible to do so, and this is something the program encourages as the mental health issues are addressed. She also pointed out that they have seen an uptick in child mental health issues since the start of the pandemic, especially when schools went virtual.
“We hear all the time, “I love my kids, but I just cannot do this right now,” and sometimes, when a child is hospitalized due to mental illness, the parents actually breathe a sigh of relief,” Messick said. “But they know it is temporary and that when the child gets home if nothing changes, the stress will be right back. Respite services are just not available. There are also not enough beds for children with mental health issues, so one of the things we do is sit with families in the ER. We have one child now who has been in an ER since March 30 because they have no beds, so the parents are taking turns sitting with them. We go and give them a break or sit with them to give them an ear to listen.”
The pandemic has been another issue for child mental health. First, because children were home all the time, they were not getting the services they needed, but also many children developed anxiety because of fear of COVID-19. Some lost family members while others were simply afraid of catching the virus.
‘Parents were used to sending their children to school for eight hours a day and now they were home 24/7,” Messick said “Many of them, like my kids, get accommodations due to an IEP or 504 plan but at home, there is no accommodation. On top of that, children were concerned. Because my own son was immunocompromised, when the pandemic started, he was in a bubble. When my daughter started playing softball, we decided since it was outside, it would be fine. I never held my son back from anything even though doctors told me he should not go to school, he should not play sports. He did all of that. But at the softball game, he had paralyzing anxiety because there were just too many people. He could not move. He struggled to go back to school this year because it was 100 percent in person and when they removed the mask mandate in Milford, he told me he wanted to keep his on. I asked him why, thinking maybe a kid was always coughing near him. He told me that he did not want anyone to see him. I said “Oh, if you had a better reason, cool, but now we need to work through this anxiety.”
Messick explained that they opened the office in the Milford Wellness Village because, living in Lincoln, it was a long drive to the original office in Dover. They opened an office in the Milford Airpark Plaza but she felt it was too retail and was too big for their needs. When the lease was due to renew, she remembered that the Milford Wellness Village was going to offer office spaces so she reached out.
“I immediately got an email back from Mona who invited me to take a tour,” Messick said. “Mr. Gelley was here and he is wonderful. The first thing he asked me was “what is your mission?” I was taken aback because no one had ever asked me that before. Landlords are usually just “give me your rent check” but he actually cared. And already, we feel as if we are part of a family, that this is truly a village.”
To learn more about Champions for Children’s Health, contact Messick at 302-724-7229 or visit their website at www.ChampionsDe.org.
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