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Life beyond addiction

By Debbie Rambo
Posted: 2/21/2014

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Anna is a bright though shy and tentative youngster, who like most children her age, enjoys playing at the park with her friends and considers playing computer games and painting as favorite activities. Often pre-occupied and worried about her own safety and the safety of those around her, Anna is being raised by her grandparents because of her parents' struggle with addiction.

Anna and her grandparents share the same feelings of shame, blame and loss so universally experienced by family members of those struggling with mental health issues, including addiction. Unfortunately, their inability to have open conversations about these feelings was limiting the family's ability to lead healthy and flourishing lives.

Happily, Anna and her grandparents are now getting the help they need through Catholic Charities Laboure Center's Recovering Connections program which offers individual, family, and group counseling options for persons impacted by a loved one's substance abuse. The program has been developed to create an environment that encourages the involvement of the broader community in recovery and, in particular, respond to the needs of the family members of those struggling with addiction.

Addiction and mental illness can create the kinds of family turmoil that lead to a condition that Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, calls "toxic stress." Toxic stress results from continued exposure to traumatic childhood experiences. Dr. Shonkoff's research has concluded that children who do not have an adult who provides some sense of security and safety will likely develop life-long maladaptive stress responses. The long term consequences of toxic stress are some of the most expensive issues society deals with today. Dr. Shonkoff explains that "prison is incredibly more expensive than early childhood programs. Economic dependence is much more expensive than people earning a living and paying taxes. Being healthy is much less expensive than paying for heart disease and diabetes and stroke."

One goal of the Recovering Connections program is to end the silence and shame so often associated with addiction, and to create a way for communities to engage in open conversation about the impact of addiction and the need to continually improve access to high quality services for all of those involved.

The recently released first edition of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) Behavioral Health Barometer: Massachusetts provides a unique overview of Massachusetts' current behavioral health landscape and the challenges the Commonwealth continues to face in addressing these issues. Essentially, the report confirms what we see each and every day -- that more people in our communities, including our young people, are suffering the effects of mental illness and substance abuse (Massachusetts teens are drinking alcohol and using illicit drugs at a higher rate than their peers nationally) -- while access to the much needed treatment services has decreased.

One significant factor driving the mismatch between the need for mental health treatment and its availability is the increasing economic disparity that continues to carve away at the middle class. Although many people are returning to work, they have often been forced to take jobs with lower wages and less job security than their pre-economic downturn positions. Isolation increases as community ties are severed by families relocating in search of lower cost housing or closer proximity to new jobs. Although one of America's highest educated states, Massachusetts has experienced the country's second-biggest increase in income inequality over the past 20 years, according to a Reuters analysis of U.S. Census data. Today, Boston has the least equitable income distribution in the country when measuring against the largest American cities.

Thanks to their involvement in the program, Anna and her family are feeling more able to manage life stressors and are hopeful about life beyond addiction. Programs like Catholic Charities Laboure Center's Recovering Connections just begin to meet the need for mental health services for all regardless of socioeconomic status. Sadly, there are not enough programs in our communities to help young people like Anna. It will take the commitment of government, nonprofits and private organizations to ensure that mental health gets the attention and remedies it so desperately needs.

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Deborah Kincade Rambo is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.