Exploring Residential Mental Health Treatment: An Interview With Tonda Williams

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year, people from all over the country are joining together to start vital conversations that seek to break through the silence surrounding mental illness and increase public understanding of an issue that affects millions of people across the globe. From celebrities bravely disclosing their own struggles with mental illness to students engaging in vibrant discussions about emotional and behavioral health, people from all walks of life are speaking out to help those struggling with psychiatric conditions find support and treatment.

In this interview, Bridges to Recovery Admissions Director Tonda Williams adds her voice to the conversation and addresses many of the questions people have regarding residential treatment for mental disorders. Whether you’re considering coming to residential treatment yourself or supporting a family member, Tonda’s insights can be invaluable to helping you access the kind and quality of care you need.

How Is Residential Treatment Different Than Outpatient Treatment?

Most people who are considering residential mental health treatment have been in some form of outpatient treatment at some point, sometimes even for years. When outpatient treatment is not giving you the results you need, it can be common to question whether a residential treatment program will be any different.

But residential treatment isn’t simply outpatient treatment in a residential setting; rather, residential programs offer opportunities for healing that outpatient services cannot provide, allowing you to more fully participate in the healing process to get to the root of your issues. “Often therapies that dig deep are very difficult to do on an outpatient basis because you often only have 50 minutes,” Tonda explains. In a residential, setting, however, you are not limited by short, defined timeframes. Tonda says:

The luxury of being in a residential treatment program is that the therapist can open the person up and continue to dig and dig and dig; they don’t have to put the person together in 50 minutes so that they are safe enough to return home. They can be exposed in a residential program because they are in a cocoon, and they are engaging in treatments throughout the entire day.

This is particularly true in programs that offer daily individual and group sessions, providing a fully immersive and continuous experience that invites deep engagement in a safe, structured way. “Often people come into treatment feeling that they are not being heard, whether from clinicians or families,” says Tonda. “With daily individual and group therapies, people feel heard and they become more involved in their recovery.”

Additionally, residential programs can offer multidisciplinary experiences that use a comprehensive array of therapeutic modalities, opening up multiple avenues toward recovery. Tonda explains that having a multidisciplinary clinical team also “makes for a more accurate diagnosis” and truly personalized treatment because you don’t have one specific person driving the treatment plan. Rather, the team combines their expertise to continuously tailor your care to meet your individual needs.

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What Can I Do If My Loved One Is Reluctant to Come to Treatment?

Many people are reluctant to come to residential treatment based on sensationalistic and incorrect understandings of what residential care entails. “Often, clients have a certain perception of what treatment looks and feels like,” Tonda says. “Unfortunately, in social media or in movies, mental health programs are not often presented in a positive light.”

But those representations are not true to life, and often exploring a high-quality residential treatment program is enough to persuade your loved one to get the help they need. “Once they are able to go to the program’s website, look at the pictures, speak to someone, and get an understanding that they do have personal rights, that is often enough to convince someone to go to treatment.” Visiting the treatment program prior to admission can also help put your loved one’s mind at ease and feel comfortable with the decision to seek residential care.

If this is not enough to convince your family member to come to treatment, you may seek the help of a professional interventionist who will work with your family to guide your loved one into care.

How Long Do I Stay in Residential Treatment?

The length of each person’s stay should be guided by their own unique needs. The minimum recommended stay is typically 30 days, though many need more time to optimize their healing process. “By the time you are admitted to the program, go through neuropsychological testing, begin to get comfortable with your therapist, and address concerns about your medication, you’re already at 45 days.” For people with complex mental health needs, 90-day programs that include intensives and other specialized therapeutic interventions are often ideal.

Why Does Program Size Matter?

As a rule, small programs with a high staff-to-client ratio offer superior treatment experiences. “Clients don’t slip through the cracks,” Tonda explains.

In small programs, there’s a constant evaluation of the client; it’s not just what’s happening in individual and group sessions, but what’s happening when they’re eating, how they’re interacting with other clients, what their sleep patterns are. All of that information is vital and is factored into treatment.

As such, having a small program size is critical to the healing process, and optimizes your chances of receiving the quality of care you need to move forward.

How Can Busy Professionals Take the Time to Come to Treatment?

Successful professionals and high-level executives often struggle with their diagnosis for years prior to coming to treatment, in part because they have been able to remain high-functioning and have not had to face the reality of their illness. By the time they are considering residential treatment, however, they have often hit a wall. “They can’t move forward, whether it’s in their professional life or something is lacking in their personal life.” The intensive treatment available at residential facilities can help professionals get at the root of the problem quickly and make the emotional and behavioral changes necessary to heal.

But even if you recognize that you need residential care, it can be difficult to make the decision to take time off work to get the help you need for fear of professional repercussions. Usually, however, these fears are unfounded. “More often than not, the employer is very happy to hear that they are considering treatment, especially with professionals who are very valued at their jobs” Tonda explains. “They want them to take this time because they want them back at their best.”

While taking time off to fully focus on your therapeutic process is often best, there are times where you may not be able to fully remove yourself from work for the entire length of your treatment. In these cases, seeking out a residential program that can give you the level of care you need, as well as the flexibility to meet your professional obligations during the course of treatment, is your best option.

What If I’m Reluctant to Leave My Family for Treatment?

Many parents struggle with the decision to come to treatment because doing so will mean taking time away from their children. But “30, 60, or even 90 days is really just a blip on the screen in the context of your entire life,” says Tonda. Additionally, not addressing your disorder is typically far more detrimental than leaving for a short time to participate in treatment.

Often when I talk to clients about their day-to-day life, they begin to realize that they’rephysically there for their kids, but mentally and emotionally they aren’t present. If you have to be away from your children for X amount of time, to then be able to be fully present in your child’s life and participate and feel good about your relationship with your children, it is worth it.

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What Happens After Treatment?

Often, one of the reasons people fail to achieve long-term stability following residential mental health treatment is the lack of a comprehensive aftercare plan. This involves “taking what they were successful with in our program and replicating that on an outpatient basis.” As Tonda says:

Many people have been to two or three programs in the past, but they did not have a clear path for sustainable recovery after treatment. It’s really exciting for them to know that they’re going to have a very thorough aftercare plan after they leave the program.

A detailed aftercare plan may include outpatient therapy, support groups, family therapy, and workplace accommodations to help you preserve and build on the gains made in residential care. For people who struggle with basic life skills, the treatment program itself should include an adaptive living program that will serve as a strong foundation for continued success upon returning home.

Aftercare planning must also account for the environment to which you will be returning, and ensure that it is conducive to the most successful outcomes. “Just because someone is coming to treatment doesn’t mean that their home life has changed,” Tonda tells me. Because one of the most significant points of vulnerability is often the family dynamic, family members should ideally be getting their own help to break through damaging patterns and create more harmonious relationships. “During treatment, recommendations should be made for the family to seek their own therapy and other supports to help them make the changes as well.” Seeking out a treatment program that offers specialized services specifically for family members can be a critical part of successful, ongoing recovery.

Helping You Create the Life You Want

Despite the trepidation many people feel about residential mental health treatment, high-quality residential care can be life changing. “I see clients who are only coming to treatment because of an ultimatum or who have been to treatment before and this is their last attempt,” Tonda says. They arrive in deep distress, with little hope, and sometimes without the desire to participate in treatment at all. But as the weeks pass, something changes.

Not only do they feel it, but you can see it in their physical appearance. You can see the light and brightness return to their eyes. You see the return of self-esteem and the pride they have in themselves. They no longer feel shame.

For Tonda, one of the most powerful experiences is witnessing the mending of interpersonal relationships and healing of families. “To see the repair of the families, to see them reuniting, being able to communicate again, and having hope, is really exciting.”

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring impulse control disorders. Contact us for more information about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.