If you asked Jessica* to describe her 12-year-old son, Matt*, she will tell you that he is special. “Matt has always been quirky, active and intellectually advanced,” she says.
However, beginning in the second grade, Matt was also described by teachers as “less focused and filtered” than other children, leading to lots of visits to the principal’s office and overwhelming concern. So Jessica and her husband began their journey of seeking help for Matt, taking him to a therapist and other specialists.
“We saw a psychologist, behavioralist, pediatric hypnotist, licensed clinical social worker and psychiatrist on the recommendation of Matt's pediatrician,” Jessica says. “His school also approached me and asked if they could assess him, and it was determined that he had attention and mood issues, which were officially diagnosed as ADHD with mood disorder and impulsivity.”
According to Jessica, Matt’s intelligence has always ensured that his grades remain unaffected by his challenges. His academic testing is above grade level and there has never been a decline in his academics.
However, his constant presence in the principal's office and diagnosis led to Matt receiving an IEP, or individualized education program. This legal document ensured Matt received accommodations for his classroom frustrations, which provided some relief — that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Reaching a breaking point
Like most students across the country, Matt began online learning at home. While some kids welcomed the break from school and social pressures, Matt’s challenging behaviors only increased.
“He was having angry outbursts and was very defiant,” Jessica says. “Life was just generally very unpleasant, to say the least.”
While a dip in mental health among people of all ages was not unusual as COVID-19 case numbers grew and more precautions were put in place, Matt’s issues far surpassed the norm. Jessica knew that Matt needed more than weekly therapy, and the multiple failed attempts to find a medication that would help became trying for everyone.
“Nothing seemed to make much of a difference,” Jessica says. “By August of this year, we were at the end of our rope.”
Matt had previously been assessed for the Child and Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, where an experienced team of physicians, therapists and other specially trained mental health workers offer programs specifically designed for young people and their families who are facing significant challenges. Initially, Jessica says they were not yet ready to commit to such an intensive program. But with their concerns about Matt’s mental health growing, they had reached a breaking point and were willing to give it a try.
“When I dropped him off on the first day of the three-week program, he was so angry at me,” Jessica says. “He asked why I hated him so much. I cried the whole way home.”
Finding support for the whole family
While Matt struggled at first, he and his parents began to see results. He was placed in a highly structured, therapeutic environment where he learned self-esteem and relationship building, as well as techniques for improving and maintaining better behavior. A psychiatrist also worked with Matt to find effective medications better suited to his needs.
Daily cognitive and behavioral goals were integrated into Matt’s life and intensive family involvement was encouraged. Matt learned coping techniques and recovery strategies to improve his daily functioning and self-control, and express his feelings in a healthy way — all of which led to improved mood, behavior and relationships.
“The hours of parent coaching made a huge difference for us,” Jessica says. “Rules were set and a philosophy for Matt was created — what behavior would be tolerated and what would be ignored completely. And we were taught how to set this up at home too. This coaching was key to helping us learn how to deal with Matt’s emotional issues as he was receiving his own treatment.”
While Jessica will admit that Matt wouldn’t necessarily rush to return to the program — as most kids his age would rather spend time with family or friends or doing the activities they enjoy — he is glad he went through it and knows he is better for it. She is extremely happy to report that Matt is doing well, has a much shorter recovery period when agitated, and is excelling at focusing in school, even though it remains online.
“Our family is still a work in progress, of course, but the Sharp Mesa Vista program gave us a foundation from which to grow,” Jessica says. “I am so happy we landed there and I am sharing our story because I want other parents in a similar situation to know what a great program it is.”
*Names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.