Help is a Phone Call Away
words by Gregory Bean
magine you’re the mother of a special needs child. Imagine that you feel guilt — you fear your child’s problem may be your fault — and your marriage is falling apart from the stress. Maybe there’s even domestic violence. Your financial world is caving in, and you stand to lose your house. You think your kid’s therapists and medications aren’t working, that things seem to be getting worse and your own mental health is tenuous. You feel like you are battling for your life — there are days when you feel triumphant interspersed with really down days. And you feel so alone.
When Cherie Castellano, program director for University Behavioral HealthCare new MOM2MOM helpline, took the first call in November 2010, the woman on the other end had all of those troubles, and more. “She was desperate,” Castellano says. “She was locked in her bedroom, overwhelmed with a laundry list of problems and I could hear banging in the background. Her bedroom was the only place she felt safe. She said our program was an answer to her prayers — no one else could really understand.”
“I told her, ‘We’ll take your problems one at a time. I’m here.’”
And that’s what Castellano did, and what MOM2MOM’s trained peer counselors have done for the other mothers of special needs children who have called the 24-hour helpline at 1-877-914-6662 — most of them multiple times — since its inception. The peer counselors, including Castellano, all have special needs children of their own, as well as peer counseling training to help callers find solutions to their problems. They empathize with the callers.
Mothers of special needs children also need support themselves, and they can find it best with each other, according to Castellano. In most cases, she says, the relationships developed between a helpline’s callers and peer counselors — over months, possibly years, of call-backs — are beneficial to the counselors as well as those seeking help.
MOM2MOM is for mothers of children with a variety of problems including Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, medical problems, or, as Castellano says, “any issue that we find in our state.” The project was launched with $80,000 in seed money from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, and is a partnership between UBHC and the Foundation of UMDNJ. Currently, the helpline operates in Essex and Union counties with minimal advertising, but the hope is to attract enough private and corporate donations to expand it statewide, and even nationwide. Calls from six other states came in after a brief description of the program appeared online, all of them asking, “Can we get Mom2Mom in our state?”
If UBHC’s track record is any predictor, that goal will be realized. Its first peer-to-peer support program, COP2COP (1-866-COP-2COP), which has been in operation for more than 10 years and was called a “national model” by The New York Times, has fielded thousands of calls and been credited by many police officers for saving their lives. It was launched when Castellano, working in the mental health field in Newark, saw the “deer in the headlights” look in the eyes of too many overstressed police officers and decided something had to be done. Her concept of a peer-to-peer helpline, staffed by retired police officers, was embraced by many, including the NJ Legislature, which established and mandated the law enforcement officer crisis intervention telephone hotline, in cooperation with UBHC, in 1999. The 24/7 hotline serves the entire state and has been used as a model in other crises, including the launch of helplines for rescuers, firefighters and emergency service workers who were first responders on 9/11.
The NJ VET2VET helpline (1-866-838-7654) is another UBHC project on its way to becoming a national model. Established in 2005, and funded by the New Jersey Department of Military & Veterans Affairs, the veteran peer counselors employed by UBHC also use their personal experience to connect with other veterans in the state. The VET2VET model has gained so much attention that when an increase in suicides occurred at Ft. Hood, Texas, UBHC established a helpline for service members and their families. On Feb. 1, 2011, callers at UBHC’s headquarters in Piscataway, NJ, took the first call to VETS4WARRIORS (1-855-VET-TALK) and discussions are underway to provide these services nationally.
Because she is married to a detective, Castellano has a personal interest in the success of COP2COP. But of all the programs, it is MOM2MOM that is closest to her heart. She always wanted to be instrumental in establishing a program to help other mothers of special needs children.
“At the core of these peer programs is shared, lived experience, resilience and hope,” she says. “It inspires me to see individuals who are in high-risk environments connect and support each other. For all the times our police, rescuers, military and mothers of special needs children are there for someone else, we want to be here for them.”