What’s a mother to do? Kelly was homeless and addicted to methamphetamine. Child Protective Services took her 8-year-old son and her teenage daughter was with her father.
“It was like there was a monster inside my head,” Kelly says of her darkest days.
After first trying meth at age 17, she maintained several years-long stretches of sobriety — and had two kids — but kept falling back onto the streets when stress, anxiety or panic attacks overwhelmed her in her 20s.
“The worst was when I lost my son in 2012. That was when I hit rock bottom,” Kelly says. She was 34. “I didn’t think I would ever see my daughter again because her father had cut all ties, and I just assumed that she hated me.”
Kelly checked into the Siena Francis House on June 21, 2013. She needed sobriety. She needed her children. She would regain both. But it wouldn't be easy.
“It was fight or flight, and I was out of chances,” she says. “The judge made it very clear in Sarpy County Drug Court: I was either going to get it together or he was going to terminate my rights as a parent.”
The World Health Organization describes mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
New research from a community needs assessment conducted by United Way of the Midlands over the summer (funded by Mutual of Omaha and the Omaha Community Foundation) found that mental health is one of the most pressing needs within the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area. Every client interviewed for the assessment mentioned concerns about mental health, ranging from addiction to abuse and social isolation.
Rebuilding her life
Meth addiction nearly destroyed Kelly. But there was another obstacle in her mental health recovery.
“The anxiety! You think you quit using drugs to give yourself a better life, and then all these other things come along,” she says.
Kelly’s son was struggling. “He went through a couple different foster homes,” she says. “One was my mom’s, and she couldn't handle him. At the last foster home, he tried to hurt himself.” He was kicked out of schools and several youth programs. With roughly a month left in Kelly’s treatment at Siena Francis House, the homeless shelter agreed to let the youth stay with his mom until another residential program became available.
Kelly stayed sober and entered Better Together, an intensive outpatient program offered through Heartland Family Service in collaboration with the Douglas County Housing Authority, Seldin apartments and Nebraska Families Collaborative (now PromiseShip). United Way of the Midlands currently provides funding to Heartland Family Service’s Behavioral Health programs.
The program provided family counseling, and Kelly began to confront her anxiety without self-medicating.
“I don't know how I could have made it without my therapist and all the support that Heartland (Family Service) gives,” she says. “There are times that I just wanted to run. That’s what drug addicts do. We run.”
Kelly began to make a new life for herself. She married a man who had entered the Siena Francis House program the same time she did and became a stepmom to his two children. She regained custody of her own children; and the couple had a child together (now 4 years old).
Kelly graduated from Heartland Family Service’s Better Together outpatient program in March 2017. Continued therapy sessions have helped her avoid relapse while continuing her journey of mental health recovery. She sees a therapist every few weeks depending on what’s happening in her life.
“The therapist I see is one in a million,” Kelly says. “She has done so much for me and has never judged me. She always has the answer and never steers me wrong. ... I always walk away from our sessions feeling that I can conquer anything.”
Kelly, now 40, says that her friends, family, colleagues and regular customers at the restaurant where she works all know of her struggles with addiction and mental health. She feels loved and accepted. But how the rest of the world responds is always a question. The stigma remains. That’s why she asked that her last name not be used.
“There is nobody in my world who doesn't know what I’m dealing with,” she says. “But I don't know how my boss would react (to the public sharing of my mental health issues). ”
Support is 'extremely important'
A Heartland Family Service official says the agency would struggle to provide behavioral health resources to Kelly and other financially unstable residents without financial support from United Way of the Midlands.
“The United Way is extremely important — and needed — to help cover the services that we provide,” says Heather Bird, Nebraska behavioral health director at Heartland Family Service.
Bird, a licensed therapist and social worker, says behavioral health problems are associated with a wide breadth of concerns: stress, depression, anxiety, sexual abuse, relationship problems, addiction, learning disabilities, mood disorders, gambling, homelessness, and other issues that bring reverberating consequences for client’s employment status, family stability and the wider community.
“Our clients are very complex; they are often involved with many different systems,” Bird says. “They could be involved in the child welfare system. They could be involved in the legal system, probation, etc. Many times, they may be near homeless or currently homeless. They may be at the shelter or have transportation barriers, childcare needs. We try to help with those things.”
United Way of the Midlands provides financial support to nine regional mental health programs serving impoverished residents.
The United Way is also a partner in the Regional Health Council, a collaborative effort to implement a Community Health Improvement Plan that addresses the overarching priority of mental health across the Omaha-Council Bluffs region.
“This is an innovative collaboration looking at preventive, community-based strategies to strengthen mental health across our metro,” says Mariel Harding, a community impact director focused on health and food security at United Way of the Midlands.
The Regional Health Council aspires to not only promote mental health, but also to confront the stigmatization of mental health problems.
“Anyone who is interested in being involved in that collaborative work is welcome to be involved — even if they are not mental health professionals —teachers, firefighters, journalists, stay-at-home moms,” Harding says.
“Everyone knows somebody who is struggling with addiction or mental health issues,” Kelly says. “Everybody’s got baggage.”
Where would Kelly be today without the mental health support from Heartland Family Service and United Way of the Midlands?
“I would be struggling ... I suffer severe anxiety and it’s rough. Some days are worse than others. But I chose to never use meth again.”
For more information about United Way of the Midlands’ funded behavioral health programs, please visit unitedwaymidlands.org.