By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO
Recently I learned that one of our female residents reported her intent to harm herself. As they discussed her feelings and what was causing her to feel so desperate, staff agreed that she required a psychiatric hospitalization to assure a safer environment and a greater level of care, at least temporarily. When I learned this, my reaction was relief that we were able to address this issue before the girl was able to harm herself. However, it does not resolve the larger issue that we have seen increased suicidal ideation not only with residents but also day students at the Hillsides Education Center. At any given time in the last academic year, an average of two students a week were absent for psychiatric hospitalization.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24. The increase in suicides is alarming, and warrants consideration as an epidemic. Children living in foster care and those identifying as LGBTQ are at a higher risk than the general population. Many children in our care fall into these two categories, so for us, special vigilance is required to be attentive to any indicators of risk for suicide. Changes in mood, unusual behavior, increased isolation, depression, and self-harming behavior are all things that would raise our concern and require our attention.
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Given the significant increase of incidents, it is important for all of us to become familiar with the warning signs. Some believe that asking about suicide will only increase the possibility that someone will harm himself or herself. However, the opposite is true. Addressing the possibility that someone might be depressed enough to harm themselves is often the conversation that can make the difference and avoid a tragedy. A recent CBS report of how a couple was blindsided when their 17-year-old daughter jumped off a highway overpass to her death points to the challenge of recognizing the warning signs. A high-achieving, socially active and well-liked child was nevertheless consumed with self-doubts and loathing, unable to express her feelings except in a journal that recorded her anguish. Because suicidal thoughts can be so difficult to detect, it is important to approach our children with a heightened sensitivity.
At Hillsides we address the issue of suicide as an opportunity to assure the children and youth in our care that we are committed to keeping them safe and will provide what they need to deal with anything they are experiencing. Helping them trust adults is perhaps the greatest obstacle given the traumas they have experienced. Being non-judgmental, affirming, and consistently present goes a long way in overcoming the lack of trust. Communicating in word and action that they are valued and important is often what children need to know in order to seek help.
The stigma associated with mental illness is significant. The tendency to underestimate the risk of suicide is strong. The stressors affecting our children and adolescents are easily unrecognized. Without becoming unnecessarily protective, we should adopt a vigilant posture in increasing our awareness of the risk of suicide and take advantage of the opportunities we have to assure our children of our love and care.
For more information about suicide prevention, please visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
By Alison Bell
We all want to connect with the people in our lives — our co-workers, family, friends, and even strangers we interact with. One secret to better relationships lies in a program called *Risking Connection®, which teaches a mindset and skills for working with survivors of traumatic experiences. Risking Connection® helps people recover from trauma through RICH@ relationships, those that are characterized by Respect, Information Sharing, Connection, and Hope.
Hillsides is currently leading its employees through Risking Connection® training, with an emphasis on RICH®. While the training is directed at helping our clients recover from trauma, the principles of RICH® can be applied to our everyday life for fuller, happier relationships.
Here, Hillsides director of training, Samira Vishria, offers five tips to make all of our relationships RICHer:
RICH Tip # 1: Slow down. Time has become a precious resource for most of us. In our rush to get everything done, we may make snap judgments or not give others our complete attention. For example, you may get annoyed when a co-worker asks you to do something in a demanding or agitated tone. However, instead of writing off the encounter as an irritant, Vishria suggests responding with, “I am happy to help, but first I have to ask, is everything okay?”
This does two things. First, it lets the other person know you care enough to ask about their well-being. Second, it helps you let go of any assumptions fueling your exasperation. You may discover, for example, that your co-worker got some bad news that morning, which is influencing how they are treating you. With this simple question, you gain sympathy for them, and they gain a listening ear. What could have been a dark moment in both of your day can turn into a bright spot of connection.
RICH Tip # 2: Replace “need” with “can.” When making a request of someone, we often use the word “need.” For example, you may say to your partner, “We need to get going.” “Need,” however, conveys a sense of urgency and position of power that can come off as harsh. As an alternative, Vishria suggests using “can,” as in, “Can we get going so we’re not late for the dinner?” The change is subtle, but softens your request in a way that doesn’t make the other person feel defensive or under the gun. The result: better overall communication, and as a bonus, a greater chance you will get the desired results.
RICH Tip # 3: Exchange more information. Throughout life, we are often told “no.” “No, you can’t park here.” “No, you can’t enroll your child in this program.” “No, your insurance doesn’t cover that procedure.” It’s easy to get frustrated and to blame the bearer of bad news. The result? Total communication shut down. What can help is staying calm and probing deeper into the reasoning behind the decision. (The trick is you have to really listen, not just ask why to blow off steam.) Not only does this make the interaction more bearable, often in hearing the rationale for the rule, you will find some pieces of information that are helpful to you.
Conversely, when you’re having a tough talk with someone, in your desire to get the information out quickly, you may not be as thorough as you could be. Yet, everyone likes to know as much as possible so they can make an informed decision. “Exchanging more information helps both parties see the other side and shows a mutual respect,” says Vishria.
Rich Tip 4: Create small bridges of connection
It’s easy to feel like others aren’t making an effort toward us, but it can be beneficial to ask yourself, What effort am I making? “Small gestures, such as making eye contact and saying hello to people you see every day makes a big difference in feeling connected,” says Vishria. Often, too, we pick up on the cues around us. Maybe your office environment isn’t that friendly, or no one says hi to the clerk at your local market. “However, you can be the one to change the culture,” says Vishria. “Don’t wait for someone else to do it – you do it first!”
Rich Tip 5: Put the “h” word into more conversations
“Hope” is a powerful word to drop into conversations. For example, if you are having a disagreement with someone, try to end the conversation with, “I hope we can discuss this later and find some common ground.” Checking in with the person after an unpleasant talk is also a way of staying hopeful even if you don’t use the actual word. “It might be as simple as saying, “I felt really bad after the conversation. Are we okay?” That opens up the chance for more conversation and an opportunity to see more eye to eye.
Life is complicated and filled with the potential for both meaningful and dissatisfying encounters with those around us. By following the RICH® model, we can all make our lives – and everyone else’s –a little better.
*Risking Connection is a registered trademark of the Sidran Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people understand, recover from and treat traumatic stress, dissociative disorders, and co-occurring issues, such as additions, self-injury, and suicidality.
By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO
The child welfare field is relatively free of any significant political bias, although clearly it is in favor of maintaining entitlements for children. The well-being of children, youth, and families who are vulnerable is a concern for elected officials, regardless of their political party association. That being said, politicians like to know the opinion of their constituents and are committed to representing the best interests of those they serve. However, policy issues involving foster care are complex. Issues often are not fully vetted and can easily be influenced by competing philosophical agendas. In this environment, it is imperative to have advocates who can cut through bureaucracies and succinctly represent the concerns of those directly involved in delivering services to vulnerable children and families.
As the executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, Carroll Schroeder has been an extraordinarily effective advocate for children, youth, and families. Hillsides has been an active member of the Alliance from the Alliance’s establishment in 2000. During my tenure, not only here but in Northern California, I have had the privilege of knowing Carroll as a colleague, friend, and advocate for the children of California. After 17 years in this leadership position, Carroll is retiring at the end of the year. I’m sure the Alliance will find a very capable candidate to fill the vacancy. However, I’m confident that no one will surpass Carroll as a leader in this field or more effectively speak to the critical issues facing children, youth, and families.
During Carroll’s tenure as the executive director, the Alliance has addressed major issues that directly affect the children and families we serve. Whether it be assuring that mental health services are available to all children in the foster care system or guaranteeing adequate funding for residential services or reform efforts to improve care, Carroll has been at the forefront of initiatives to create positive change.
I meet with Hillsides’ staff regularly to hear their concerns about how to serve best the children and youth in our care. Especially as we implement significant reforms in the foster care system, there is always a concern that the strategies we employ need further development. The insights of staff and the experience of our clients are important to take into account when we interact with policymakers who are hoping to influence best practices in the field of child welfare.
Carroll is always interested in those insights, and helpful at directing who might best address them. He was able to marshal the resources of the Alliance to create effective change focused on the well-being of those we serve. He did this not only with a smile but with the ability to bring a smile and a laugh to those with whom he collaborated. His effectiveness has meant that the children we serve enjoy a greater level of care driven by a commitment to provide them and their families what they need most.
It is not often that this blog highlights the efforts of one person, but it is important to recognize such a great advocate because all of us, in our own way, are called to be advocates. The children, youth, and families we serve have a fragile voice, weakened by the trauma they have experienced. As Carroll has done throughout his career, we must lend our voice to theirs, and together address their needs.
By Lisa Gavitt
Being a college student isn’t a walk in the park. It is stressful, exhausting, challenging and really pushes you to use your mind in ways you never have before. It’s even harder to return to college once you’ve taken a break because it’s easy to get out of the study habit.
Many of the youth in our Youth Moving On (YMO) Program for those transitioning from foster care to adulthood have experienced a disrupted education because of circumstances beyond their control. When they jump back into student life, not only are they dealing with the challenges of being a student, many are facing homelessness and lacking financial or emotional support from caring adults.
Although my situation is very different from the youth at YMO, I experienced my own struggles after graduating high school that forced me to take some time away from school. I ended up returning at the age of 22 and finally, five years later, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Fullerton this past May.
Here are some tricks I used to get back into the routine of being a student that can help anyone else in the same situation:
Despite the long nights, tears shed, and stress-filled days, I reflect on my college experience as some of my fondest times. It helped to build my identity, enhance my self-esteem, and teach me about life. As Warren Buffet once said, “The greatest investment a young person can make is in their own education, in their own mind. Money comes and goes. Relationships come and go. But what you learn once stays with you forever.”
Lisa Gavitt is the development coordinator for Hillsides’ Advancement Department. She recently graduated with a major in communications from California State University, Fullerton and studied abroad for one semester in Sydney, Australia. She has worked with children as a nanny, a tutor, and an English teach in Vietnam, but always dreamed of becoming an event coordinator. Her position at Hillsides has allowed her to fulfill her goals while staying in touch with her passion for helping children.
By Amy Salgado
It’s that time of year when we begin replacing beach days and late summer nights with early mornings and school days. The start of a new school year can bring about excitement, anxiety and new challenges. Here are some tips to help begin the school year with hope and success.
Routines are important to help kids anticipate what is expected each day and to promote self-regulation. Start your child’s day with a breakfast and have a healthy snack upon their arrival from school. Consider reducing access to screens and allowing for more opportunities to engage positively with others.
Before bedtime, it’s also a good idea to prepare for the school day by making lunch, setting out clothes, or making sure all materials/assignments are packed. Allow your child to help in the process – even if you don’t always agree with their wardrobe choices. This will help children build skills and begin to take responsibility for themselves.
You can begin to practice this new schedule even if school hasn’t started yet. By the time classes start, your kids will be in the swing of the morning rhythm.
Take note of important dates and keep them organized on a calendar. These include open house, Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, and parent-teacher conferences. Also, many schools provide a downloadable calendar you can hang on a wall or your refrigerator.
If your child has an IEP, review it before school begins and continue to do so throughout the school year. It may be helpful to review the accommodations with your child so that they can understand what is available to help them progress. Be sure to make note of changes that need to be made based on your child’s current needs. Reach out to the school if you have any questions or concerns.
Communicate often with the school. If your child or family has experienced changes over the summer, let the school know. Teachers should also be informed of any concerns or milestones. This can help the teacher build a positive relationship with your child and support their successes.
Aside from communicating with the school, it’s also important to communicate with your child. Children look to adults to guide them. If you demonstrate a positive attitude toward school, your child can begin to create their own healthy and positive beliefs that can result in improved academic performance. If your child has a good day at school, provide reinforcement and share in their excitement. If your child comes home from school disappointed, offer support and validation. Encourage your child to try again the next day.
Reflect and Prepare
As you look forward to the future school year, take time to review the previous year with your child. If they ran into any challenges, how did they work through them? Talk about strategies that helped and how your child can deploy them again this year.
If you anticipate a new challenge, such as a difficult teacher or social scene, talk through sources of support or skills that can help your child successfully navigate through any difficulties. By preparing for possible road blocks, you help your child confidentially navigate them.
Be kind to yourself
Take care of yourself – eat well, exercise, and try to get enough sleep — and encourage your family to do the same. By modeling healthy habits, you are teaching your children that they are valuable and setting them up for success. Here’s to a great school year!
Amy Salgado is an education support services therapist at Hillsides Education Center, a therapeutic residential and non-public school located in Pasadena, CA. In her job, she supports children and their families with their educational goals as part of a wraparound team. Amy, who has also worked as a school therapist in public, charter, and continuation schools, recently celebrated her two-year anniversary at Hillsides. To learn more about Hillsides Education Center, please visit www.hillsideseducationcenter.org.
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