Mary Ann Frattarole thinks it was early 2012 when she started getting desperate calls from parents and caregivers of children and adults with special needs. “I got some heart-wrenching calls from parents that had a special-needs child,” she says, including one mom who also had a husband with a disability for whom she was the only caregiver. “She said, ‘I don’t know how I can make it another day. Can you please help me?’”
The state provides many resources for people with special needs, but offers little help to their caregivers. Parents and other family members often find themselves exhausted, burned out and depressed – sometimes with tragic consequences.
Frattarole, director of operations at USC Telehealth, decided to launch a program to provide free virtual therapy sessions for parents and caregivers of people with special needs. But despite the fact that the program has been in operation for almost four years, it still isn’t reaching as many families as it could.
At any given time, USC Telehealth counselors are working with 150 to 200 families coping with the challenge of caring for someone with autism, ADD/ADHD, physical or developmental disabilities, or learning, behavior and emotional difficulties. But Frattarole says the program can work with as many as 500 families.
To get started, caregivers just contact USC Telehealth at 866-740-6502 and let them know which Regional Center they are affiliated with. The only equipment required is a computer or laptop less than five years old or an iPad, and high-speed internet access. The service is available throughout the state, and participants do have to provide proof of California residence, but USC does not require proof of diagnosis or proof of income.
Participants are guaranteed to receive at least 12 sessions with a carefully chosen MSW intern at the USC School of Social Work, which trains 70 percent of mental health workers in the state. USC can usually schedule a caregiver’s first therapy appointment in two business days.
Appointments take place via a secure Internet connection, making it convenient for even the busiest caregiver to talk with a therapist. “Everything about the service is exactly the same as seeing a therapist in their office, but without the driving,” Frattarole says. “This is a way for them to get help at home.” And because the program is completely free of charge, it doesn’t strain a family’s already-stretched financial resources. “We’re able to provide help that doesn’t add any extra stress on the family,” says Frattarole.
One story Frattarole recalls is typical of the type of help the program can provide. A mom in her late 50s was the sole caregiver for her teenage son, who had developmental disabilities and severe behavior issues. Her marriage had ended in divorce years earlier, and she was exhausted and terrified of what would happen to her son when she was no longer able to care for him.
What’s more, this woman was so focused on her son’s care that she hadn’t taken time in many years to pursue hobbies, to travel or to do other things for herself. Her counselor helped her begin the process of planning for her son’s long-term care, and, with her anxiety over her son in check, even helped her plan some experiences for herself. “She was able to pursue a few of the things that gave her joy in life,” Fratterole says, adding that restoring quality of life for caregivers is one of the program’s major goals. “They feel like they’re drowning,” she says. “We want to get people out of that desperate day-to-day survival.”