By: Alan Johnson, NAMI Ohio
Her world fell apart the first week Shabbo Ferguson couldn’t go to school.
The 13-year-old girl from Dublin in Franklin County, the adopted daughter of Celeste and Jimmy Ferguson, has post-traumatic stress disorder and developmental trauma and functions more like a young child than a teenager. She desperately needs structured time in school to calm her and give her unstressed time away from family.
But the onset of the COVID-19 virus closed Ohio schools, including Shabbo’s neighborhood school in Dublin, and deprived her of the chance to recharge her batteries, Celeste Ferguson said.
“In the first week, we saw her anxiety,” she said. “Even with medication, she was hearing voices throughout the day and night telling her to hurt herself and members of her family. ‘I should be dead,’ she said.” At one point, she tried to jump out of the car on the highway.
Meanwhile, another COVID-related story was unfolding in Urbana in Champaign County where Kimberly Foster struggled to deal with her step-son, Tyler, who is 10. Tyler has a range of serious behavioral health issues, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and a tendency to rage and become violent, often aimed at his own family.
Like Shabbo, Tyler can’t go to school because of the virus quarantine. The tension in the household, which includes three other children aged nine, four and three months, is sometimes overwhelming because of Tyler’s obsessive behavior issues.
“Each day gets a little bit worse,” Foster said. “All his doctors agreed that the level of treatment he needs is to be institutionalized. Right now, with Tyler, it’s like I’m here with 20 kids. I feel like I’m about to break down.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio (NAMI Ohio) is working with the Ferguson and Foster families and many others to help them “weather the storm” on the home front because of the COVID-19 crisis. NAMI has a statewide network of Parent Peer Supporters working in the Parent Advocacy Connection (PAC) Program. The NAMI peer parent supporters provide no-cost help to parents with high-risk kids to assist them navigate the troubled waters of daily life and to deal with a complicated mental health system.
The peer parents know the system because they’ve been there themselves in dealing with their own children. They’ve walked the path ahead so they know what to expect.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has created a situation like no one has lived through, said Jody Demo-Hodgins, Director of the NAMI Ohio Children’s Division. “Adults are worried and stressed about everything – safety, health, income to name a few. Adults are able to educate themselves and use coping skills to get through each day. But for kids, it’s more challenging. Their lives have been upended. There is no school, daycare and friends. The routine they counted on from Monday to Friday is vastly different. Their level of physical activity is infinitely different than it was on March 1.”
Demo-Hodgins said a good first step is to limit, as best you can, talk around children about your worries tied to money and health and to limit their exposure to news. “Let them know you are trying to keep them safe. Talk to them about why washing their hands is important and make a game out of it with a song or a timer. Try to keep a routine. This includes a bedtime that is similar to the one when school is in session. Three meals a day with a limit of snacks. Play outside when possible and connect by phone or FaceTime with their friends and family so they can see for themselves that those they care about are ok. It is also important to answer questions in a simple, honest way that provides information and facts but not fear.”
“Remind your child that everyone gets scared and anxious at times,” Demo-Hodgins added. “Let them know you love and care about them. We as adults can take care of our emotional health. That might be one of the best things we can do for any child we love and care about.”
Celeste Ferguson, who teaches immigrant children at a Columbus-area private school, and her husband adopted Shabbo from India two years ago. While they don’t know the youngster’s complete history, they are pretty certain she was traumatized by domestic abuse and abandonment in her childhood. The Fergusons adopted two of Shabbo’s sisters and another child from Ethiopia.
Fearing Shabbo would harm herself or her family, the Fergusons took her to Nationwide Children’s Hospital Behavioral Health Services where she was admitted about four weeks ago. She has since been transferred to a special-needs residential facility In Wooster, OH. Because of Gov. Mike DeWine’s stay-home order, the Fergusons can only connect with their daughter by phone or video calls.
Ferguson said working with Courtney Earliwine, a NAMI Ohio peer support parent and regional coordinator, was a lifesaver. “Early on in our journey we partnered with Courtney. She has walked through the whole thing with us. She know the ins and outs of the system. I definitely could not have done it without her.”
Kimberly Foster worked with Nicole Gerty, another NAMI peer parent and regional coordinator. “She helps out as much as she can but just about everything’s on hold right now.” She said the three days Tyler spent away from home in a juvenile detention facility were the most restful she’s had in months.
“Just remember what you’re here for,” Foster said. “You have a purpose. You have to fight through the pain and headache to see there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
To reach the PAC Program, please contact Dana Berryman, State Coordinator at (614) 580-0726 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suggestions for homebound parents with high-risk children:
- Respond to their reactions in a supportive manner.
- Build in structure whenever possible but be mindful when they show signs of needing a break to be silly or to just rest.
- Answer their questions in an honest, clear way. When you don’t know an answer, be honest about that and look the question up if possible. The Ohio Department of Health has done an amazing job of keeping clear, accurate information posted on their web site www.coronavirus.ohio.gov
- Find ways to build in opportunities for physical activity a few times a day. Go for a walk. Create a relay in your yard or house. Play hide and seek. Do jumping jacks or sit ups. Dance. Ask them for ideas.
- Find ways for them to help. It might be doing simple chores or helping plan and cook meals. Let them know this is a Family Team and they play an important role as one of the members of the team.
- Model positive behavior. If you need to shed some tears do it out of their sight especially if they are under 10. If they see you break down, be honest about your stress but let them know you are committed to carrying on.
- Keep track of their sleep and appetite. Encourage them to be in touch with friends virtually.
NAMI Ohio wants to thank the courageous parents included in this article for allowing us to share their story. The Parent Advocacy Connection Program is available throughout Ohio to help parents get through this pandemic.
NAMI Ohio also pledges to advocate for the supportive services that these children and families desperately need.