Michael works as a psychiatric technician caring for those at Southwest Idaho Treatment Center
When you meet Michael Campbell, your first impression might be of an avid outdoorsman, his skin tanned from hiking in the hot Idaho sun. His jeans and blue T-shirt (with a frog on it) would make you think he is more worried about comfort than fashion. His warm smile and easy-going manner will give you the feeling that he’s living an easy, comfortable life.
His actual daily routine is demanding, exhausting, and sometimes heartbreaking. It would be overwhelming to most of us.
Michael got his tan by spending many hours in the hot sun drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk with the people he calls his family. The frog on his T-shirt is intentional and helps to draw the attention of residents at the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center (SWITC) as he hands out medications. “What’s this on my shirt? You think it’s a frog? You’re a smart guy. I’m so proud of you,” he says to a resident. His smile is because he loves what he does. His easy-going manner is what keeps him a favorite among staff and residents.
Michael has spent close to 40,000 hours or 19 years “on the floor” as he calls it. His job is tough, and it’s not for everyone. But his job as a psychiatric technician, or psych tech, is his passion. He spends his days making sure the current SWITC residents have a home away from home. He wants them to feel protected, loved, and honored. The residents may be autistic or have other developmental disabilities. They may sometimes harm themselves or others. Some are unable to communicate. Some need one-to-one care all day, every day. Michael simply wants to help them live their best life as they continue their journey to self-sufficiency.
The primary responsibility of a psych tech is to implement the person-centered plan for each resident. This plan includes skills training, medication administration, and behavioral training support. At SWITC, there are currently 45 psych tech positions. The psych techs do not have standard shifts, but they do have their own shift usually working 8 to 10 hours. Jamie Newton, SWITC administrator, said they discovered that not having groups of employees come in or leave at the same time lessened anxiety among the residents.
“Michael is the epitome of what a psych tech should be,” said Jamie. “He has the amazing ability to calm people, to understand what they need.”
Jamie told a story that demonstrates Michael’s commitment: “There was a resident who needed a haircut, but he refused to get one. No one could talk him into it. Then Michael, who had long hair, told the resident that he would cut his hair with him.” The resident then agreed to the haircut, and Michael kept his promise. With his long hair cut short, he can smile about it now, “I don’t mind.”
Michael starts his day at 4 a.m. organizing the Aspen unit, where he spends most of his time. In the Aspen unit, the desks are clean. There are very few distractions except some art supplies and a computer for residents to use. The residents’ rooms are decorated with posters of their favorite things (like Boise State and corvettes), and their bins are overflowing with their favorite items. The furniture in their rooms is made of soft yet heavy plastic – designed to keep residents from hurting themselves or others. The Aspen unit has the lights down low. It’s more soothing to the residents, so it stays that way. There are numerous binders available to staff where they document all the activities and any incidents throughout the day.
At 8 a.m. each day, Michael helps wake any resident who is still asleep, and the staff and residents fix breakfast together. They eat together, family style. If a resident prefers to eat alone, that’s OK too. The experience at SWITC is tailored to the needs of each resident.
When it’s time to administer medicine, each resident enters the med room, one at a time, and the medications are given slowly, deliberately … no rushing through this part of the day. The pace is comforting to the residents.
When resident Y enters the room, he indicates to Michael that he wants a Gatorade. Michael calls on his walkie talkie for Y’s favorite drink. The Gatorade arrives and almost immediately, Y spills it. That doesn’t faze Michael. “You need to clean it up, OK? That’s right. You’re doing a great job. You want me to help? Sure. Let’s clean it up together.”
When resident Z enters the med room, Michael is ready to distribute medicine again, but this time resident Z can administer his own medicine, with a little help. Resident Z is asked to use hand sanitizer and he does, so Michael gives him a + (plus) on his med form. Resident Z is asked to get a cup of water, but he doesn’t want to so Michael pours it for him. Z gets a – (minus) for that task. Z then punches out his pills from the pill packet, swallows his medication, and throws his cup away. He receives three pluses in a row.
Michael takes his time with Z as an opportunity for teaching. “What sound does a sheep make? What about a donkey? Does a donkey have ears?”
Michael’s patience is unfaltering. “In society, people forget that the residents here are people. They are people just like us,” he said.
Residents of SWITC are being nurtured, educated, and socialized. They have regular outings to get coffee, see movies, and go shopping. They can take a yoga class or go on nature walks each day. They play kickball and participate in various social activities. Their lives are structured but flexible. Each resident has a personalized program just for them, to help them gain the skills they need to move back into their communities. SWITC is a temporary support system. “This is just a stopping place,” said Michael.
When asked what he likes most about his job, Michael quickly answers, “I get to help people in need. That’s why I work here. The people here are my extended family. I love them.”
Michael’s role is so much more than employee; he’s a caregiver and mentor. He’s a friend and confidante. The joy he finds in his job comes from the connections he is making with those who need him.
Michael doesn’t like to be away from the residents for long, so after a short break for lunch, Michael walks through the Aspen unit, talking to each resident, and encouraging them to answer his questions. Resident X approaches Michael to show him a video on his computer tablet. Michael watches it with him, holding his hand to keep him steady.
Michael then heads outside with resident Y to sit in the swing and drink some Gatorade. He asks Y if he wants to get some scissors to cut flowers. Y gestures “yes,” but after walking to the main building to get the scissors, Y changes his mind. That’s OK with Michael. As they walk back to the enclosed outside area with a swing, Michael encourages and talks to Y along the way. Michael has learned to speak to Y through familiar signals and smiles of encouragement.
“He’s taught me so much,” said Michael. “I’m learning something from my family here every day.”
A Day in the Life is the first in a series of stories highlighting Department of Health and Welfare employees and the work they do every day to help vulnerable Idahoans and those in crisis gain stability to live their best lives.