Rochester Medicine

New Approach to Trauma Has Helped Thousands of Youth Recover

May. 10, 2024

They call her “The Teenage Whisperer.” She’s an intent listener, caring and curious. Teens talk to her, unprompted, at street corners and in airports. Even now, at the age of 83, Hildegard Messenbaugh, MD, is someone kids and teens are comfortable being around.

Messenbaugh turned her ability to connect with youth, along with her own exposure to childhood adversity, into a groundbreaking career. Five decades ago, she founded the Denver-based nonprofit Third Way Center and began challenging conventional thinking about mental health.

Hildegard Messenbaugh
Hildegard Messenbaugh, MD

Her pioneering approach created a haven for thousands of youth—many deemed hopeless in the eyes of society. Teens grappling with drug-addicted parents and physical and psychological abuse, or life on the streets as runaways, have worked through their problems at Third Way and turned their lives around.

Her vision was ahead of the curve in many ways. In 1970, the idea that trauma can be a root cause of troubled teen behavior wasn’t widely accepted. Decades ago, it was also assumed that damage done by trauma was permanent.

“When I was in medical school, I was taught the brain doesn’t change,” Messenbaugh said. “Nothing could have been further from the truth.”

Ignoring conventional wisdom, Messenbaugh developed an approach that addresses the trauma—not the behavior—in teens, using a series of structured steps.

Her approach has created lifelong believers, especially among those who have benefited from it. Their stories are living proof that The Third Way can be a life-changing way.

Prison or One Last Chance

Brendan Bartic, a successful real estate broker and entrepreneur in Colorado, is an Army veteran, national sales trainer, and president of the Third Way board of directors. You wouldn’t know it now, but by the age of 14 he was on the fast track to federal prison.

His father, a Vietnam War veteran, was an abusive alcoholic. His mother was a bipolar schizophrenic. Home was not a safe or stable place for their two children, so Bartic found himself avoiding it whenever possible, leading him to a harmful crowd and a path of crime that landed him behind bars.

93 % of teens come to Third Way Center with a history of abuse or severe neglect

He had been in and out of the foster system before ending up in juvenile detention. As a teen, he faced triple charges tied to drugs, theft, and drawing a firearm. His caseworker struck a deal with a judge who gave him one chance to turn things around—on the condition that he reside and receive treatment at Third Way.

With nowhere else to turn, Bartic took the deal. He arrived at Third Way in 1994 with nothing but a trash bag, jeans, and a t-shirt. He moved into Pontiac House, one of the residences on campus, where he met other teens with stories like his.

Third Way Center offers services for people ages 14 to 21 who lack the skills to live on their own. These include a five-house residential treatment program, two alternative high schools, and four specialized treatment programs.

The treatment process starts with an attempt to reconcile the family situation. In these meetings, Messenbaugh made an impression on Bartic right away.

She wasn’t afraid to smack you—not physically—but “emotionally, in a way that would help you move forward.”

Central to the work is her “Six Boxes” methodology, a structured approach to treating trauma in steps, from identifying destructive behaviors to processing trauma and taking steps toward restorative justice.

“We’ve understood since the inception of Third Way that behavior is related to trauma,” said Kristi Edmonds, PhD, LPC, clinical director at Third Way. “And if you only address the behavior, you’re not making real change unless you really deal with the trauma that is behind those behaviors.”

Messenbaugh with two youths on a trip to Japan in 1976.
Messenbaugh with youths on a trip to Japan in 1976.

A key pillar of the Center’s approach is encephalopathy—the principle that trauma causes physical damage to the brain. The good news is that the brain can heal with the right interventions.

“That gives us hope,” Messenbaugh said. “It makes us invent new ways of treating people and curing them.” The turn comes when counselors can “see the lights go on in an adolescent’s eyes, when they see what they have to do.”

After a few explosive meetings with his parents, Bartic says it was clear that reconciliation wasn’t going to happen.

“At that time, I didn’t know why I was so angry,” he said. “My whole life I was told our family was cursed. It was just kind of embedded in me that I was either going to just be a criminal or a security guard at Walmart because that’s all I knew.”

Over the course of months and years, he faced his trauma with help from counselors. It’s neither fun nor easy work. Bartic remembers a lot of screaming, crying, and storming out of sessions.

“What I respected was that her message to me wasn’t ‘Poor you.’ It was trying to find emotional justice,” he explained. “I was told that you don’t have to be OK with what happened to you, but she made me realize I had to take responsibility for my actions in order to process what I’d gone through and deal with it.”

Eventually he was able to move from Pontiac House to a more independent spot, Lincoln House, as he progressed through phases of treatment. Unlike foster homes, where he wasn’t permitted to leave the house, he had an apartment on campus where he learned skills like cooking and doing laundry for himself.

He got a job and learned how to open a checking account and balance a checkbook. He started to see what life could be like and that he wasn’t doomed to a lesser life. At the age of 17, he was emancipated from his parents and joined the Army.

If it wasn’t for Third Way and Dr. Messenbaugh, I would definitely be in prison

Brendan Bartic

Today his company hosts career-shadowing opportunities for Third Way teens. He is the president of the Center’s volunteer board, helping raise millions of dollars to keep the work going.

“If it wasn’t for Third Way and Dr. Messenbaugh, I would definitely be in prison,” he said.

He knows how much goes into turning a life around. “It’s an extremely difficult role to take people through their trauma,” he said. “She was tough. She was systematic. She’s seen everything and has probably been called every name under the sun by kids and parents from every walk of life.”

That’s how Third Way has helped thousands of people. But Messenbaugh almost didn’t survive her own childhood to do any of it.

A Story of Survival

At the age of four, Messenbaugh and her family were forced into concentration camps during World War II, not because they were Jewish but because they had fled her birthplace (present-day Serbia), where German-speaking natives were being targeted. They escaped to Austria but were considered fugitives by the Nazis and put into camps.

Lincoln Opening 92 Hildegard front of Linc
Messenbaugh at Lincoln House, a Third Way residence for older adolescents.

She remembers the sights and sounds of the year they spent in captivity, although she’s grateful to have been young enough for those flashes to remain dim in her memory. Messenbaugh later learned that she and her mother had been taken to the gas chamber but were spared. The reason? “They ran out of gas,” she recalls. “God saw fit to save my sorry behind for a reason.”

In 1945, she, her parents, and younger brother were liberated by the Allies. The family looked to the United States for a future, but her father died before he received immigration papers. Years passed before her mother finally received approval. By then, Messenbaugh was 16 and her younger brother was 11, and they were excited at the prospect of a new life in America.

But being an immigrant was “terrifying,” Messenbaugh admits. They settled in Rochester with almost no money, so her mother worked as a seamstress for the Hickey Freeman garment factory. A member of the employer’s family, Tom Hickey, kindly paid for Messenbaugh to attend Nazareth College, an all-female institution at the time.

She struggled to fit in. One day a classmate snapped at her for complaining, saying, “I’m sick of you. I didn’t come to your country—you came to mine. The least you can do is make an effort.”

That bit of tough love made her cry for a week. But it also struck a chord, and the two remain dear friends to this day.

Messenbaugh graduated from Nazareth in 1962 as president of her class, then attended the UR School of Medicine and Dentistry on a full scholarship. She quickly found the male-dominated setting different from the community in which she had thrived at Nazareth.

Despite these difficulties, a bright spot came in the presence of George Engel, MD, Rochester’s legendary psychiatrist and teacher who pioneered the biopsychosocial model that thrives to this day. His idea that outside factors contribute to medical outcomes deeply influenced her holistic approach to care.

“He was probably the most fascinating human being I’d ever met,” said Messenbaugh. “He was a brilliant teacher, and he taught me about a world that I’d never considered.”

Inspired by Engel and her desire to help others, she found a clear path forward in psychiatry. She completed her residency at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. She and her husband, Bert, from the MD class of 1965 and also a surgeon, put down roots in Colorado, where they raised their children, Mark and Kristin.

Lowry Groundbreaking in 2006.
Messenbaugh and others breaking ground at Third Way Center's Lowry campus.

After completing her training, Messenbaugh volunteered for an after-school program for youth. She worked several years and started a successful private practice in Denver, then got the itch to found her own center.

In a stroke of good luck, she received a donation of $2,000 from a banker named Ken Caughey who had met Messenbaugh through her work at the University of Colorado, where she had been the medical director of the inpatient adolescent service. The gift was just enough to jump start her next chapter.

Her first real clients happened to be teens, and she enjoyed working with them so much that she never looked back.

“When they get better, they really get better,” she said of adolescents. “For an adult to change a habit is really hard. But nature pushes towards equilibrium and growth at that age. So yes, there’s more … drama, there’s more carrying on. But there’s also that natural push.”

A Lasting Approach

How has Third Way stood the test of time? Bartic credits how the Center has evolved with medical and therapeutic treatments. In other facilities, he said, “they’re stuck in 1952, where when a kid yells, they’re tackled” and put in restraints. You see something altogether different at the Center.

“It was built on research and science, and I’ve been impressed with the continuance of innovation to never stop learning,” Bartic said.

In the early days of Third Way, onlookers struggled to accept that negative behavior can be traced back to factors like physical and sexual abuse, violence, and poverty. It is a fact, however, that these can trap teens in a cycle of institutionalization, incarceration, or homelessness.

One of the houses at Third Way's Lowry campus.

One of the houses at Third Way's Lowry campus.

How can the cycle be broken? Restorative justice is an integral part of the Six Boxes methodology. It acknowledges that all abuse is unfair, but to keep it from controlling your life you must confront the source of your abuse to move past it and thrive.

“I know one thing for sure. No one [messes] up their life on purpose,” said Messenbaugh. That’s been the cornerstone of the model she has built from the ground up—something she documented in her book, Getting Even: A Manual for Healing Childhood Trauma.

David Eisner, MEd, executive director at Third Way, started working there in 1977 at the age of 23 and has watched it grow and evolve.

“She’s empathetic, but at the same time she’s truthful about what it takes for them to resolve it. She’s firm in terms of dealing with the abuse.”

Today the center is staffed by 160 people and has an annual budget of more than $20 million. Messenbaugh continues to work full-time as medical director.

Their waitlist is long, with names from across the country. As far as the legacy she would like, she laughs and says she’s just happy to get through the day. The numerous awards and accolades she has received are nice, but they’re not the point.

“The truth is,” she said, “I don’t deserve any of that because I’m having a great time.”

Visit Third Way Center's website to learn more and to watch videos of patients sharing their stories.