In her classroom at Riley Hospital for Children, Sara Midura ‘16, MS ‘20 sets aside Fridays for one of her students’ favorite activities: Brain Club.
The Educational Liaison for Riley’s Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit, Midura works with children and teens coming out of behavioral health crises. It’s often a scary, uncertain time for the kids. That’s where Brain Club comes in.
In the hour-long weekly sessions, psychologists help students develop dialectical and cognitive behavioral therapy-based skills to cope with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
“It’s a lot easier to talk about your brain and how it functions rather than say, ‘I have anxiety,’” Midura says. Brain Club teaches students how to remove the stigma from their diagnoses. Issues such as eating disorders or suicidal thoughts aren’t personal failings—just different things a person’s brain can do. And with the right kind of coping skills, students can respond to life’s difficulties in healthier ways.
Midura can see the relief on students’ faces after Brain Club. “It makes things less vulnerable for them,” she says.
Midura’s path to teaching and working with youth at Riley was “like divine intervention,” she says—with a little help from Butler’s College of Education faculty. Midura always knew she wanted to be an educator, but she thought she’d be an elementary school teacher in a more traditional classroom setting. She says Lecturer Theresa Meyer pushed her to get a special education certification.
“She literally cornered me at an event and said, ‘I cannot believe you’re not getting your special education certification. You have to!’” Midura recalls. It was during one of Meyer’s classes that Midura first visited Riley Hospital, and from there, her career path took shape.
“Everything opened up,” she says. “It was really clear that was where I wanted to be. I was lucky to be able to student-teach there. I can remember all the classes and things I learned at Butler, but it was really the people who changed me, supported me, and made me think bigger.”
Any given day might find Midura working one-on-one with students, advising parents on how to help their children transition back to school, or providing teachers and schools with the tools to help students succeed once they’re back in the classroom. She also collaborates with physicians, psychologists, behaviorists, and social workers on treatment plans.
But like for many teachers, Midura’s most rewarding moments come from the students.
“The kids are obviously the best part of my job,” she says. “They teach me so much, and their resilience is really incredible. The biggest challenge is the time—I love forming those relationships with kids and their teachers, but it’s hard to support both in the way they truly need in the limited time I have with them.”
That support for students and teachers is crucial, and it has informed Midura’s approach to her work.
In the past, teachers in Midura’s role focused mainly on academics, helping students keep up with missed school work. But now, Midura concentrates on long-term solutions. Her work has attracted some positive attention, making her a top-25 finalist for Indiana Teacher of the Year 2019. She has also collaborated with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and a hospital system in Portland, Oregon, to build a framework that helps teachers support students who are coming back to school following treatment in behavioral health units.
“One week of missing school is not going to be as detrimental as not setting students up with a long-term plan, or making sure the people in their lives understand what they need,” she says. “And if we’re expecting parents to follow a treatment plan, we have to give that same information to teachers because it’s the only way kids will be able to change their behavior and build up their resiliency.”
And that’s Midura’s ultimate goal. Among the many challenges that come with facing a mental health crisis, one of the most difficult is a feeling of powerlessness. It’s especially true for children and teens, Midura says, but the work she does at Riley “gives them their power back. And that’s huge.”
Photo by Mike Dickbernd