Joshua Mallia, 16, is handling his teen years with grace and maturity.
He’s a 10th grader in Jacksonville, attending classes full-time and loving high school. He’s involved in the arts and athletics, and he competed at the state and regional levels for Special Olympics this spring.
But Josh will be the first to tell you none of this would be possible without FACT, Methodist Home for Children’s program for youth who are dually diagnosed with mental illness/severe emotional disorders and underlying developmental disabilities.
“FACT changed my life,” he says. “It’s the best thing that has happened for me.”
Life was pretty miserable for Josh and the Mallia family when he entered FACT day treatment in February 2008 at age 11. He was aggressive and angry. He was bullied, vulnerable and isolated. He was in trouble at school. His parents, Joe and Nicole Mallia, were in doctors’ offices constantly trying to understand what was wrong. Answers were hard to come by, but the diagnoses seemed to flow, including Asperger’s syndrome, childhood bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.
Josh was just 2 years old when his symptoms appeared, and he’d launch into rages that could last for hours. He’d scream, lash out and hit anybody near him. His parents would hold him until he finished and his body would go limp, but the meltdowns became harder to manage as he grew.
“Eventually we just stopped going places,” Nicole says. “We felt like the world’s worst parents.”
In middle school, the problems got worse. Josh couldn’t focus and he’d sleep in class. His social skills lagged. He alienated teachers and peers with violent outbursts, hitting, pushing, knocking holes in walls and breaking windows. He was once suspended from school after bullies cornered him in the bathroom and he fought back, trading blow for blow. Seven times he was transferred to new schools in the Onslow County School System.
The Mallias had reached their wits’ end by the time he reached 7th grade. If his own parents couldn’t handle him, they wondered, how would the rest of the world treat Josh? “We were at an impasse,” Joe says. “We were afraid for Josh. We didn’t know how he’d fit into society.”
FACT was their last resort.
The day treatment program at FACT creates a structured environment—9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, year-round—where kids can learn to manage their issues and work toward their goals. For Josh, the goal was to control his emotions and behaviors well enough to return to school full time. The program doesn’t focus on academics, although students do keep up with school work as they’re able.
Josh says initially he wasn’t open to the idea of going to FACT. He was nervous, and he had a few meltdowns during the transition. “But at FACT,” he says, “you had to be calm for 15 minutes before you were allowed to join the group.”
In small groups, slowly, he began to make friends and learn coping techniques in recreation therapy, social skills training, behavior management training and personalized therapy. He began to have fun and he began to get a handle on his actions.
“Some of the lessons I learned were to behave and to be a good role model for the younger children who were at FACT,” he says. “Learning to control my anger and my aggressiveness was one of the biggest lessons we focused on.”
Josh can keep his cool now by counting to 10, remembering to walk away from bad situations and going to authority figures or adults for help when needed. As he worked on these skills, family sessions with FACT therapist Michele Jordan helped his parents and younger brother, Brandon, 14, deal with their own frustrations and stress. They teamed up to support Josh and to get themselves back on track as a family. “I can say that they were the hardest-working and most committed family I have ever had the privilege to work with,” Jordan says. “They never gave up, no matter what was thrown at them.”
When Josh was ready, in January 2010, the staff began his transition back to school. He started with one class—7 a.m. at Northside High School—and then headed to FACT for the rest of his day.
“We did school slowly,” Nicole says. “Some days after school he would be all pent up after holding in his emotions or anger. When he went to FACT, he was able to deal with those issues. They were very proactive at getting to the root of the issues and identifying the causes for why he was feeling aggressive or lashing out.”
Josh eventually added another class to his schedule, then tried two classes and lunch—a new hurdle with social elements he had to master. He returned to school full-time in fall 2012.
The transformation in their son has been incredible, his parents say.
“Josh has had to deal with more things at age 16 than most adults have to deal with,” Nicole says. “He understands that, and he doesn’t feel badly for himself.
“We went from overwhelming fear to overwhelming joy. We had no idea how many doors would open up for Josh once he was able to get his emotions and behaviors under control. FACT truly does change lives.”