Elizabeth Stoltz, Program Director of the Living Independently, Functioning Everyday (LIFE) Project at Southern California Alcohol and Drug Programs, Inc. speaks about a young woman in the program who recently had some insights into her own role as a partner in the healthcare system. The LIFE Project serves single mothers and fathers with co-occurring disorders who experienced chronic homelessness. A Services in Supportive Housing (SSH) grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Center for Mental Health Services funds the project.
“A woman (Kendra) came back to our program to get back on medications. Her stress levels were too high. She had sought mental health services elsewhere and when she came in, she shared her thoughts about psychiatrists she had seen,” Liz continued. “I don’t want to do their job, but I want them to listen to me, ” said Kendra.
The LIFE Project always focuses on nonviolent communication because it is such an important thread. It filters into every aspect of day-to day living, as well as all of the relationships among staff, parents, and children. Most recently, the program focused most intensely on building community. All of the participants live in permanent housing situations. This focus on community helps to reduce isolation, retain housing, prevent relapse, increase wellness, develop a positive sense of self, and provide community support.
The program does not have on-site housing, but rather contracts with the county and Shelter Plus Care program. Through those programs, the LIFE Project offers permanent housing and sober housing. The program found that the transition from residential to permanent housing is often very challenging. Many of the women transition to permanent housing from the streets and residential treatment. Some are court ordered. The supportive housing locations are all over Los Angeles County, with services spread out as well. The county is enormous, transportation is unreliable, and it is easy to become isolated.
In order to mitigate this challenge and offer a way for women to connect socially, the LIFE Project offers regular discussion groups and a place to gather in a neutral territory. “What is happening is that it provides support for the women who attend regularly. Some have children and some don’t, but it is an opportunity to check your thinking, “says Liz.
The groups invite people to talk about their mental health. Ten years ago, there was a stigma on this topic that is not there today. Now, it is about managing symptoms, coping with anxiety and depression, and recognizing the signs that precede addiction. “It allows people to discuss what they are dealing with. Fear is such a big part. We often have such great fear and being able to trust ourselves without having to fear ourselves. When you fear yourself, it slowly makes you a stranger to yourself,” notes Liz.
The groups teach women that it is possible to self-regulate and to manage post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This knowledge liberates the women. It empowers them to understand what is happening in their brains and bodies. The program emphasizes that nothing is taboo. People can explore their thoughts and not feel isolated. Program results confirm that empowering women to deal with their health also benefits their parenting, household, diet, and confidence.
In Liz’s view, “We all heal each other.” In closing, she offers her favorite definition of mental health: “Mental health is the emotional and spiritual resilience which allows us to enjoy life and to survive pain, disappointment, and sadness. It is a positive sense of well being and an underlying belief in our own and others' dignity and worth1”.
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1. Health Education Authority. (1997). Mental health promotion: A quality framework. London: Author.