Friday, October 9, 2020

Hurricane season: Emotional and psychological disaster preparedness

(Note: This blog post was originally published in July 2019 as Hurricane Barry approached Louisiana. With 2020’s especially active hurricane season, we are sharing it again with updated resources and information on COVID-19 and flu season.)

By DR. JAMES E. HUSSEY | Medical Director, LDH Office of Behavioral Health

Tropical weather in the Gulf this week has us on our toes, ready to spring into action if things get nasty. While here in Louisiana we’re always ready for the possibility of high winds and torrential rains, we usually look to the practical side of things: Did we stock up on food and water? Is the generator ready to go?

Those things are undeniably important, but it’s also a good idea to be prepared mentally and emotionally. Natural events such as a storm can unfold in minutes to hours, yet the feelings and emotions they evoke can linger for weeks, months and even years after.

Psychological preparedness can help you think logically and wisely during and after disasters, helping to keep you physically safe while also weathering the emotional storm.

Disaster-related stress can affect anyone, but some people may be more vulnerable than others. They may include those with disabilities, existing mental health issues, children, the elderly and those who have been previously impacted by floods, hurricanes and other disasters.

Recognizing disaster-related stress

FEMA has some online resources aimed at coping with disaster. First, it is important to be able to recognize signs and symptoms of disaster-related stress, and to seek counseling or assistance. According to FEMA, some symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty communicating thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty maintaining balance in their lives
  • Low threshold of frustration
  • Increased use of drugs/alcohol
  • Limited attention span
  • Poor work performance
  • Headaches/stomach problems
  • Tunnel vision/muffled hearing
  • Colds or flu-like symptoms
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Reluctance to leave home
  • Depression, sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Mood swings and easy bouts of crying
  • Overwhelming guilt and self-doubt

It’s OK to seek help

If disaster-related stress starts wearing you down, it’s perfectly normal and OK to ask for help. Here are some helpful resources:

  • The Keep Calm hotline, 1-866-310-7977, will connect you to trained, compassionate counselors who can offer support and who can direct you to mental health and substance abuse counseling services.
  • The Behavioral Health Recovery Outreach Line, 1-833-333-1132, offers 24/7/365 support for healthcare professionals and recovery support for those with substance use, mental health, mental illness or co-occurring disorders. Qualified support providers will connect you to trained specialists and clinicians in multiple languages.
  • The Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for those in emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
  • For non-emergencies, check the Office of Behavioral Health directory for local community behavioral health services in Louisiana.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a Disaster Kit for recovery workers, which includes wallet cards, guides for parents, caregivers, teachers and others. There is also a SAMHSA Disaster App.

Contact your primary care doctor and/or your insurance plan for referrals to behavioral health specialists.

Physical and emotional health

Hurricane season arrives amid the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the oncoming flu season. It is just as critical to take care of your physical health as it is your emotional health. 

  • Flu and COVID-19 are respiratory diseases that share the same preventive measures: 
  • Wear a cloth mask or face covering, 
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds,
  • Use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are unavailable, 
  • Cover coughs and sneezes, 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unclean hands,
  • Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces regularly,
  • Don’t go out unless necessary,
  • Keep a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and others, and
  • Stay home if you are sick.

This year, it is more important than ever that you get your flu shot. An individual whose body is already weakened by the flu is likely to be more susceptible to COVID-19. The flu shot lessens the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths, so vaccinating as many people as possible decreases the likelihood of our healthcare system being overwhelmed by both flu and COVID patients.

Flu shots are available at your local clinic, your healthcare provider, most pharmacies or at one of the Department of Health’s upcoming vaccination clinics. 

If you believe you have been exposed to COVID-19, isolate yourself from other people and call your healthcare provider. 

The Louisiana Department of Health’s Fight the Flu website and COVID-19 webpage offer a wealth of guidance, resources and more information.

FEMA also recommends that you take steps to promote your own physical and emotional health and healing by healthy eating, rest, exercise, relaxation and perhaps even meditation. It is important to maintain a normal family routine as much as possible and to lean on your existing support groups of family, friends and religious institutions.

Be prepared

For many people, having a disaster supply kit stocked and a family disaster plan ready is a great comfort. When the storm comes, you’ll be ready to go. For more information, click here.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Recovery Month 2020: No longer 'loitering with the intent to recover'

By DANIEL FREEDMAN | Counselor in Training, St. Christopher’s Addiction Wellness Center of Baton Rouge

My name is Daniel Freedman, I am 28 years old and I am from Baton Rouge. I am a recovered drug addict and alcoholic, and by the grace of God and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous I have been sober since October 15, 2016.

Before that date, I spent several years in and out of recovery with varying degrees of success. As a friend said to me once, I was simply “loitering with the intent to recover” in the rooms of AA. So, what was different about the sobriety that began October 15, 2016 compared to all of the other times I tried to get sober? To get there, I have to tell you a little about how I became addicted.           

I had a normal childhood by all accounts, and I can say without hesitation that my parents did the absolute best they could for me and my older brother. My father is an alcoholic, but he remained sober for the majority of my life. He worked a normal job, had normal hobbies like gardening, and we did normal things like watch LSU football games and yell at the television. My mother is not an alcoholic or addict, and I believe she is as close to a saint as one can be. My brother is a substance abuser, but as he was six years older than me, I didn’t truly see this until I became older.

Alcohol, painkillers and more

My first experience with substances was marijuana at age 13, followed close behind by alcohol, painkillers, benzodiazepines and, honestly, whatever else I could get my hands on. I dealt with anxiety and depression as a kid, and I always had a feeling that I was somehow different from my peers. I justified this feeling as being the only Jewish boy in my school or some other perceived reason I was different. The reality is I was a young boy who had all of the early signs of alcoholism — I have often heard this referred to as the “ism.”

I was irritable and restless, and when I was first introduced to marijuana, all of those issues went away. At 16, I was introduced to Oxycontin, and I distinctly remember where I was that day because I recall lying on a bed after ingesting the pill and thinking, “This is it. I have arrived.” I wanted to feel that way forever. I knew that from that moment on, I would do anything in my power to obtain that feeling.

I can assure you the next six years were anything but fun. I slowly drank and drugged my way out of one high school and into another. I partied my way out of LSU as a freshman and continued to watch opportunities evaporate before my eyes. I was not concerned. I had one moment of insanity which resulted in me living in the Middle East for a year, thinking that Baton Rouge was my problem and I would be fine if I took a “geographical cure.” I was mistaken. I was the problem. I am the problem.

Journey to sobriety

When I got sober for the first time at age 22, I was introduced to AA and actually felt a sense of belonging for the first time in my life. Although I did not remain sober then, I never forgot that feeling and I always knew where to turn if I wanted help. When I became sober this time, the first thing I did was reach out to my AA community. They were just about the only human beings left who were answering my phone calls, and they did not hesitate to help. I was not in a position to enter addiction treatment, instead detoxing on my friend’s sofa in New Orleans. I walked into the rooms of AA still shaking from withdrawals and have not found the need to leave since.

The biggest difference in my life today is that I became desperate enough to actually work the 12 steps of AA and continue working them on a daily basis. I immersed myself in the program and found myself working with others, or practicing the 12th step, very early on in my sobriety. My sponsor at the time was hard on me, saying that if I didn’t want to die I needed to hurry up and help people. He was right.

I found a spiritual relationship with a higher power and I am comfortable calling it God, although I can’t draw you a picture and it’s likely very different than your conception. I pray on a daily basis, meditate most mornings, take daily inventory and try to be mindful of where I have been dishonest, selfish, resentful and afraid. I have made most of my amends but would be lying if I said they were all complete. I work with others as frequently as I can because I still believe that the best way for me to stay sober and alive is for me to give this away.  

In 2017, I was hired by the treatment center that I went through as a recovery advocate. In 2018, I became an addiction counselor in training and was afforded the opportunity to work with addicts and alcoholics in the same building where I was a patient. I have since moved on to another treatment center and I am currently a sophomore at Southeastern Louisiana State University where I am pursuing a degree in social work.

In my addiction, if you would have told me that I would be here today I would not have believed a word of it. If you would have asked me what I wanted out of life at that point, I think I would have sold myself short because the life I am afforded today was not one I could dream of. I have real relationships with people today who I can rely on, and they can genuinely rely on me. I have real opportunities and a genuine desire to help others.

This life is all a result of working the 12 steps of AA to the best of my ability and finding a relationship with a God of my understanding. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Recovery Month 2020: But for His grace

By LORI STONE | Peer Support Specialist, Louisiana Department of Corrections

On August 10, 1992 the courts made a decision that changed the course of my life forever. I was ordered to stop drinking and taking drugs if I ever wanted to get my three children back from state custody. Honestly, because alcohol and drugs were all I had left in my life, I was pretty reluctant.

When reality set in on that day, I asked myself, “How did I get here?” I had lost my children and my family. I was homeless, embarrassed and spiritually bankrupt. This wasn’t the way my life was supposed to end up.

Growing up, I had everything a child could dream of. I was blessed with a loving, supportive family and I lacked for nothing. I was an honor roll student who was very athletic and had a bright future ahead of me. I had choices.

Any means of escape

When I was 14 years old, I found out I was adopted as a newborn. Instead of being thankful for what I had gained, I became hateful for what I felt had been taken from me. My thoughts, feelings and behaviors changed dramatically. I felt betrayed, confused, angry and unloved, for some strange reason. The hurt was almost unbearable, and I began looking for ways to escape that pain.

At that moment, I began to break the 10 Commandments and our Family’s Golden Rules. In our family you knew what to do, how to do it, why to do it and were taught to just do it because it was said to be done, with no questions asked. There were “do’s” and “don’ts” based on right versus wrong. I began to live life acting out the “don’ts.” Even knowing I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t find out the importance of these basic rules of life until later.

I started hanging around the wrong individuals and the wrong places, and doing things I had no business doing. Those decisions led me to dropping out of school early and, eventually, starting to have children at a young age. My family stuck by me throughout everything, but with their tough love, I knew I wasn’t making the choices they wanted for me.

By the age of 25, I had been raped, discarded into a canal and left for dead. I had been incarcerated, was living on the streets and had almost lost my life during an overdose. I had to bury one of my children because of my addiction and an abusive relationship I was in. I had lost all of my self-respect and dignity as a person. I drank alcohol and did drugs to escape and survive my reality. It was the only way I knew how to cope with my life, which had become unmanageable by the time I stood in that courtroom. I realized I had finally hit bottom and began to ponder how to change. How could I turn my life around?

Learning to be a mother

I decided that I was going to get my kids back first. I didn’t know how to be a mother or a parent, because my adopted mother had raised my children. I realized I had been following the pattern of my biological mother, and I wanted to break the cycle. I hated her for not loving me. I just didn’t understand.

And, I didn’t want my kids to go through what I had gone through.

Under the direction of the courts and the Office of Community Services, I was given provisions, requirements and conditions to help turn my life around. I began to adhere. I was fortunate to get into an amazing halfway house, and I completed the program they set before me. I had to attend AA meetings, parenting classes and counseling for myself and my family. I was drug tested at their discretion and lived by their rules.

As I sobered up and began to feel again, I struggled with the emotions I had numbed for so long. However, I had also been numb and out of tune with the beauty of life and what it had to offer. I still wasn’t thoroughly convinced that I wanted to live a clean and sober life. I was fighting a process that I now realize had already begun.

I completed every class and met every goal that was put before me. Good things started to happen in my life, finally. Most importantly, I got custody of my children back. Eventually, I had a home, a family and a host of new friends. One day I looked into the mirror, and I saw Lori Ann Stone for the first time in a long time. I told her that I loved her and truly meant it.

Living by grace

From that point on, I allowed my wings to spread and I soared by living life on life’s terms. That was the point in my life that I fell in love with Jesus, and that was the best thing to ever happen to me.

I was given an opportunity to be a parent from scratch again, and I now have four wonderful children. I am a very proud grandmother of nine healthy, beautiful children. Today, I’m buying a new house and car. Currently, I’m a peer support specialist who loves to assist and empower others. I also work as a program coordinator who assists persons with disabilities and the disadvantaged in achieving their goals of being self-sufficient.

I’m a survivor — only but for the grace of God — who is taking it one day at a time. Every day, I continue “letting go and letting God.” Just for today, I will strive for progress rather than perfection in all my ways.

I grieve for the many addicts before and after me who didn’t make it, and I try to help everyone I can. I will share my experience, strength and hope, which is my greatest treasure, hoping that my past mistakes don’t become someone else’s future.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Recovery Month 2020: Recovery isn’t just possible — it’s transformational

By KATHERINE PENTON | Certified Peer Support Specialist, Florida Parishes Human Services Authority

I thought I was going to die with a needle in my arm, all alone and empty inside.

I had fully accepted this as my fate because I had tried to quit shooting heroin so many times before and nothing ever seemed to work. When in those dark and hopeless moments of despair, I would often wonder how I got there. In those moments, I could never put my finger on what led me to that place, and it seemed like I was destined to stay there.

Abstinence alone did not work for me. I almost did not make it through my addiction to be able to sit here and tell this to others. If my story can help one suffering addict or change one person’s mind about Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), then my pain will all be worth it.

Empty and broken

I remember a time when I was 9 years old and living in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. I was outside, behind the trailer we had just moved into. I was looking up at the moon, feeling very empty and like something was terribly broken inside. I remember wondering if all other 9-year-olds felt the same. Now, looking back, I realize that the emptiness I would struggle to fill for most of my life started from a very early age. That 9-year-old girl had no idea what the next 25 years of life would bring, or that one day she would be taking any and every substance to try to stop that empty feeling.

A selfie of Katherine
Penton from the years
she was abusing substances

My story of the challenges I faced with addiction is not dissimilar from most other addicts. I was in and out of detox facilities and short-term treatment centers. I even had a few visits to various psychiatric units. I was miserable, hopeless and defeated by the time I was 30 years old. I somehow managed to obtain two college degrees during this time, but my goal of going to graduate school was soon forgotten.

It was difficult for my family and loved ones to understand what was happening to me. I was on the honor roll every year of high school and made straight As my first few years of college. Then, my substance abuse began. I dropped out of graduate school. I isolated myself from everyone I knew and loved. I began living on the streets. I did whatever it took to keep myself numb.

I was miserable and slowly killing myself, physically and spiritually.

Depression and anxiety are a big part of my story. Every time I would decide I was done using and either quit on my own or go to a treatment facility to get clean, once I would get through all of the physical symptoms from detoxification, my mental health challenges would rise up to meet me with a vengeance. The pain and emptiness I felt would bring me to a place of contemplating, and sometimes attempting, suicide. It became a regular occurrence and I knew to expect this every time I would quit using.

I began to associate getting clean with wanting to die, and this became torture to my soul. I was done with using and terrified of what I would become if I continued. But at the same time, I was petrified of what life would be like when I no longer had a substance to put into my body to make my mind stop racing or to make me feel normal.

My only experience with recovery was a time I managed to not use for a few months. I could not leave my house and sometimes even my room. I was overwhelmed with my emotions, and I was having constant cravings and obsessing over using.

True recovery

March 10, 2018 was the day that my recovery began. I did not know at that time that I would be sitting here today, almost 2½ years later, still clean and writing this in the hope that it might help another addict like myself. I could not have predicted that my life would be worth living and that those feelings of being empty and broken would rarely ever occur.

I found out that I was pregnant in January of that year and still could not stop using. I went to the emergency room one night after being in horrible withdrawal and reading that withdrawal could kill a fetus. The ER referred me to an outpatient clinic that had a program for pregnant women who were addicted to opiates. I was placed into the program and prescribed Suboxone as part of the MAT program.

Katherine Penton, in recovery, with her family

I still struggled in the beginning and had to go to treatment for 28 days but when I came out, something was different. I could go about my day without obsessing about using. I could talk about my trauma without being overwhelmed by the need to escape.

I realized that I felt normal for the first time ever as an adult.

I did not want to die, and I did not want to use. I no longer felt that there was a huge hole inside me that needed to be filled with something.

I began to actively participate in my recovery, going to meetings and doing individual therapy. I was able to focus on moving forward and healing from my past traumas. 

Of course, MAT did not fix everything overnight or make all my depression and anxiety go away instantly, but what it did do was allow me to feel relief and to feel balanced. I was able gain some tools and get some recovery under my belt for the first time ever. 

I no longer feel like I want to die.

I now have hope for my future. 

(Katherine Penton now works with people going through the same kinds of challenges she once tried to face alone, and she still can't stop pursuing even more education. Using medication to support her recovery changed the game for her, and has helped her to rebuild her life into something wonderful.)

Friday, September 11, 2020

LDH Staff Spotlight: Masking all y'all

Kelly Smith at her sewing machine


By MINDY FACIANE | Public Information Officer, LDH Bureau of Media and Communications 

Kelly Smith spends her days working as a transition coordinator with the Office of Behavioral Health.

In her off hours, she’s a maestro of masks.

Since March, she has sewn and donated nearly 4,700 handmade cloth masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“I like sewing, and at least I’m doing something kind of useful,” Smith said.

Kelly Smith with two of her masks

That’s an understatement.

When the pandemic broke out in Louisiana in early March, the speed of the virus’s spread created a shortage of critical personal protective equipment. First responders, hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare providers found themselves rationing, improvising or even reusing the PPE they had on hand, sometimes for days or even weeks

With supplies dwindling, hospitals began turning to commercial retailers and even made appeals to the public to make and donate cloth masks.

Soon, instructional videos and guides were on the internet showing how to make masks at home. One such video caught Smith’s attention.

“This video came up on Facebook, and I looked at it and went, ‘Oh, wow, that is so easy. I can do that,’” Smith said.

She set up her sewing machine and got to work. Her sister, Alyssa Hayes, pitched in by cutting fabric and elastic, handling shipping and maintaining the caffeine supply.

A river of handmade masks began streaming its way from Smith’s home to hospitals, the Louisiana National Guard, military deployments and other places in need.

As Smith sewed, the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise at an alarming pace. Governor Edwards issued a Stay at Home order on March 22 aimed at flattening the curve. Although cases dropped off initially, a second wave in July prompted the Governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.

With the mandate in place, the need for face masks exploded.

Kelly Smith, right, with sister Alyssa Hayes

“I started off making masks for hospitals and stuff like that, but then pretty much everybody needed them,” Smith said. “People were selling masks on Facebook for $25 apiece. It takes a dollar of materials. It takes 15 minutes per mask. It’s not worth $25 for everybody to do that.”

Masks continued to flow from Smith’s sewing machine to hospitals and others in need. She also set out a big bin in front of her house, which she filled with masks free for the taking for anyone in need.

“People from different states started asking for masks, too,” Smith said.

Smith settled into a routine: Work from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.; sew until around 10:30 p.m.; sleep until 6:30 a.m. the next day; and resume sewing until time to leave for work.

As of September 3, Smith has sewn 4,690 masks — and she’s still going strong.

Her dedication has not gone unnoticed. She said a lot of friends and complete strangers have donated bags of fabric, and some have even donated money toward buying sewing supplies.

“I’ve kept track of everything in a spreadsheet. I didn’t want to profit off anything,” she said.

All she wants is to keep on sewing, masking as many people as she can.