One of the formative experiences of my life - and the initial spark for Canyon County - was when I watched a middle aged woman get punched in the face.
I was working as a PSR in a high schooler’s home. He was typically quiet, meek almost, so I was confused by his reputation for violence. We spent a couple months together without incident. Then, one afternoon I arrived at his house, and he had locked himself in the bathroom. His mother stood on the other side of the door pleading with him not to destroy anything inside. “Don’t break my electronic toothbrush!” she said, followed by the sound of cracking plastic against the tub. “Already did!” he yelled back.
I did my best to de-escalate the situation. I told the mother to walk into the living room and ignore him for a while, but when he opened the door and hurled a cup at our feet, breaking it against the baseboard on the opposite wall, the mother pushed the door open and started screaming at him. She was about six inches from his face. She was yelling at him as loud as she could. And what she was yelling! Things that I would only say to someone I truly hated.
Everything followed a predictable path after that. The hit. Police. A month in Intermountain hospital. When he left the behavioral facility, the family was no longer interested in mental health services.
Someone could argue that focusing our web series on a violent mental health patient is inherently unfair - that we are reinforcing a stereotype all people with diagnoses have to overcome. It’s true that a person with a mental health issue is more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator. This is proven with statistics and my own anecdotal experience. In the 7 years I’ve worked with these populations (hundreds of children), I’ve only encountered 5 individuals who engaged in violent behavior.
When our production company decided we wanted to dramatize PSR, we were seriously tempted to make the client what the vast majority of clients are: nonviolent. However, we decided that ignoring violence would also be ignoring the situations that create it. As a PSR I have been slapped, punched, bitten, and my hair has been pulled. But, in each one of those instances, I was at fault. The kid was too, don’t get me wrong. They were the ones engaging with me on that level, but the initial push was always by me. I had changed a rule arbitrarily. I had been too curt with them. Too judgmental. Not empathetic enough.
If there is a message in our web series - insofar as any work of fiction should have a message - it’s that people behave in the way their circumstances allow them, and if we hope to change anyone’s behavior, we first must adjust our expectations, accept that change happens slowly, and always offer unconditional support and empathy. I’m willing to bet that in every case of client violence - whether it be at home, school, or in hospitals - the situation could have been avoided by the authority figure.
The parents, instead of matching their tantruming child, could have walked away.
The mental health professional, instead of becoming pedantic and rigid, could have bent the rules.
The police officer, instead of going for an arrest, could have listened.