Amanda Buchanan’s son has tried to kill himself three times. He threatened to kill his teacher once and spent a week receiving psychiatric care at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
He’s only 9 years old.
“He was trying to choke himself, suffocate himself. He was telling us he was going to get up in the middle of the night and strangle himself,” recalled his mother.
“I think he felt very out of control on the inside and didn’t know how to deal with it.”
A physician diagnosed Buchanan’s son at age 2 as being on the autism spectrum.
“He’s high functioning. Many people don’t even realize it. They just think I’m a bad mother, and he’s out of control,” said Buchanan, also the mother of two daughters, ages 4 and 8.
For more than a year, Buchanan, her son and family received help with a new Compass Health service aimed at children with complex behavioral health problems. The goal of the program is to keep youth, ages 3-21, in their homes and schools by learning how to cope with daily life.
Compass Health is the private, non-profit organization contracted with the state to provide mental and behavioral health services to Island, Snohomish, Skagit, San Juan and Whatcom counties.
The program, called Wraparound with Intensive Services, or Wise, ramped up what Compass Health already had in place for children. Eight had been the limit of families that Compass Health Children’s Intensive Services could handle prior to expansion.
“Then we added 10 more slots and they filled up very quickly,” said program manager Ryan O’Donnell. “There’s definitely a need. How it looks is unique to each family. We figure out what the needs are and it varies for every family.”
Compass Health also recently placed therapists in three Oak Harbor public elementary schools.
Referrals from emergency rooms, doctors and schools are the usual routes for families to find out about the Compass Health all-encompassing children’s mental health program.
“I was literally told they’d get all up in your life,” Buchanan recalled about being referred to the Wise program. “And that’s not untrue.”
The team involves the whole family and works on goals, coping skills, changing behaviors, parenting skills, and the jealousy and confusion that is common among siblings who feel left out of the swirl of activity surrounding special needs children.
One therapist, known as a youth mentor or peer counselor, exclusively hangs out with the client to try and develop an emotional connection. One therapist is assigned to parents; other team members specialize in family and individual counseling while a care coordinator oversees needs and appointments.
They initially meet at the clients’ homes, then schedule individual and group sessions with various members of the family, and others, if the family requests it.
The Wise program is one of numerous services available to children and adults who are enrolled in Medicaid, the state insurance program for low-income residents.
Compass Health’s main office in Island County for outpatient mental health services is located in Coupeville. Children and adults seeking help can usually be assessed the day they walk in, said Lou Cox, who oversees the Coupeville office.
From its Coupeville office, a staff of mental health therapists, including a psychiatrist, provide individual and group therapy, psychotherapy, and they also will travel to clients homes, offering what’s called intensive outpatient care.
Last week, Compass Health invited county program administrators and officials to a luncheon at Oak Harbor Yacht Club to discuss its services and community needs.
“We’re recognizing we need to do a better job communicating what we do here,” said CEO Tom Sebastian. “Communities of Whidbey Island have said they feel disconnected. I’ve heard people say we’re not very well-known to we’re virtually invisible.”
Sebastian said he realizes more drug addiction recovery services are needed locally, but it’s not a specialty area his company addresses.
Also needed, he added, are more mental health services for people with insurance other than Medicaid, as his program is restricted to Medicaid patients only.
Looking over photos of her son on her phone recently, Buchanan beams when Program Manager Ryan O’Donnell asks how Nate is doing.
“He has not got suspended all year,” she said. “And on his last week of school, he received the best grade for every day. Also, in the new ‘Power Rangers’ movie, the blue one is autistic and he was so excited when he realized that.”
Buchanan said the team helped her learn better parenting skills, such as becoming better organized and sticking to schedules. Her husband, who had been “out of the picture for awhile,” also needed help re-connecting with his children.
Last year in Island County, 1,025 adults and 326 youth received Compass Health services, said Stacey Alles, chief operating officer. Of those clients, 22,499 “episodes of care” were given, she said.
Among adults, 253 required emergency services, meaning Compass Health outreach workers who are on call 24-hours a day were dispatched for suicide threats or other crises. Among children, 44 of 326 clients needed emergency services.
Some of those calls come in from the emergency department of WhidbeyHealth Medical Center, Sebastian said.
Compass Health is also funded with $123,363 from Island County to provide transitional housing assistance for those coming out of hospitals, jails and treatment facilities. It also was recently awarded a $36,975 contract to run the jail transitional program.
“We work with people about to be discharged. We help them develop a plan. Really, the goal is let’s not repeat history,” said Judy Heinemann, who oversees Compass Health offices in Skagit, Island and San Juan Counties.
The team will also reach out to other people to suggest ways to handle a client’s meltdowns and how to encourage, rather than discourage.
“They include everyone in his life: my friends, grandparents, my sister, even his scout leader,” said Buchanan. “The goal is to make sure that everyone in his life is working together.
“Our walls look like a therapy room,” she laughs. “It’s full of posters and lists all over the wall. It’s a museum of coping skills.”
Helping her son process negative thoughts about himself has been one of the biggest goals, Buchanan said. Nate was diagnosed with depression and is receiving medication, she said.
While things are calmer at the household after more than one year of intense intervention, Nate still “gets negative thoughts and he can’t pull his mind back,” Buchanan said.
This past February, he attempted suicide again and ended up back at Seattle’s Children’s emergency room.
It was a setback but not unexpected.
“We don’t expect his negative behavior will never happen again,” said O’Donnell. “It’s just now Nate and his family are better equipped to deal with it.”
• A suicide hotline run by Volunteers of America will dispatch Compass Health emergency workers around the clock: Call 1-800-584-3578