child life program
A model for mental health treatment in the hospital & at home
by N. Ryan Vasconcellos

For decades, the lack of mental health care in America has been swept under the rug. There are more than 43 million people diagnosed with a mental health issue, and it is widely suspected that the number of those undiagnosed is growing as well. There is no pill to make the issue go away; it will take a systemic change in order to shift the narrative. Unfortunately, most people in health care don’t know where to begin.

The shift has already started, albeit very slowly, with the presence of Child Life Programs within health systems throughout the United States.

If you have not had the opportunity to interact with a child life specialist, you are fortunate, because that means a child you are close to isn’t going through a tough time. I can tell you from firsthand experience that child life specialists are the unsung heroes in today’s health care system. The role of the child life department is to help children deal with whatever issue has brought them through the doors of the hospital. If a child is in a children’s hospital in this country, they will spend time with a child life specialist to help them cope with their issues in a healthy way.

Care for physical ailments is very defined, especially in a hospital setting. If you’re in a car accident and have internal bleeding, surgery is prescribed. If you fall down a flight of stairs and break your arm, you will receive a cast. But what if you’re diagnosed with a terminal illness, or are the lone survivor of a catastrophic accident, or have been abandoned—what happens next? Having a trained professional to talk to about the feelings and emotions you are dealing with is just as necessary as surgery or a cast, and hospitals like Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital (LLUCH) in Loma Linda, California, understand that better than most.

Focusing on Emotional Health

Sometimes physical healing seems easy when compared to emotional healing, especially when something unexpected lands a person in the hospital. The atmosphere at LLUCH for children to heal physically and mentally is something special. They have everything one might expect from a children’s hospital: playrooms with games of all kinds, special events, and staff and volunteers to spend time with the children.

But what makes Loma Linda special is that the hospital also has round-the-clock child life specialists available to talk about anything—whether with a child in the emergency room who is scared or a chronic patient processing deep issues. The specialists stay in touch with patients for their entire stay in the hospital. They provide 24/7 mental health care, giving children a safe space to talk, vent, question and receive answers. They also run a school program so children can keep up with their class work, whether they are patients for a few days or a few months.

LLUCH goes a step further, though. The hospital utilizes a large staff of specialists, assistants and volunteers to love the children within their walls as much as they are willing to be loved. They take a genuine interest in each child—they learn their likes and dislikes, what music or movies cheer them up. The little things are just as important as the big ones to the child life department at LLUCH.

Shifting Expectations

You may be thinking, “This sounds great, but I was expecting something more if this innovative approach is going to shift the mental health of a generation.” But LLUCH does more for child patients with care, attention and love in a few weeks than some adults will experience in their lifetime.

The staff at LLUCH will come in on days off to be with a child before surgery or to bring in clothes for a child who didn’t have any. While you cannot replicate the loving, good-hearted nature of individual employees, you can replicate a culture that develops such a workforce.

Beyond these touching stories, LLUCH takes an additional innovative approach for children learning to cope with grief or other mental scars. LLUCH’s Camp Good Grief is a free camp for children who have experienced a significant loss and need a safe place to learn to grieve. The camp is run by Dorothy Brooks, the hospital’s bereavement and community education specialist. What she has put together is nothing short of miraculous. Allowing children from all walks of life to get to know other kids their age going through the same type of hurt and emotional pain is huge in and of itself.

But that is just the start. Children attending Camp Good Grief learn how to grieve and cope with their feelings and emotions in a way that sets them up for a lifetime of success.

The staff of health care professionals at Camp Good Grief are volunteers who show up to assist children and teenagers who are taking a huge step in their lives. Camp Good Grief and LLUCH are doing something special by treating the mental health of a future generation and teaching them the tools to deal with the grief they are experiencing in a healthy, sustainable way.

Mental Health Care at Home

The Loma Linda University Health System has also adopted other outpatient programs that focus on the issue of mental health in their community. The MEND program (MEND stands for Mastering Each New Direction, but the full name is rarely used) was developed by Loma Linda’s Behavioral Medicine Center to support patients and their families in maintaining or regaining emotional health and balance during significant medical illness or treatment. The program teaches children and adults how to build resiliency in the face of chronic illness. It helps families understand the internal state of the body and how to recognize and adapt to stress responses that can impact the healing process. Program enrollment within the community has exploded.

Unfortunately, in health care, patients are often forgotten once they have been discharged home. They may feel that they are on their own. But Loma Linda has created an atmosphere of true community where people at home are cared for just as much as when they were in an inpatient facility.

At most facilities, programs and treatments are fairly standardized no matter where you go. However, Loma Linda has raised the bar to another level with programs that reach community members in their homes. And by putting the focus on children, the health system shines a spotlight on the family and provides everyone in the family unit with access to the wellness and healing being offered through these innovative programs.

LLUCH offers a plethora of free classes and workshops on family wellness to the community. They have clinics and home health care available for children and adults for almost any condition or issue. The hospital also runs regular, free community events that provide critical care and education to patients and families who may be searching for more information or assistance with their situation.

I firmly believe that if the American health care system adopted the LLUCH model for managing mental health—both for treating patients in the hospital and when they are discharged home—we would see something special take place. Creating a sense of community similar to Loma Linda’s wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done. I can only imagine how the improved mental health of a generation of young people could positively impact society.