By now, it’s no secret: Life in the pandemic is stressful.
Nearing the beginning of its second year, the devastation of the COVID-19 crisis has brought illness, death, unemployment and unprecedented social isolation, making a marked impact on people’s mental health and contributing to an increase in substance abuse, according to experts in the field on the subject.
At the front lines of this battle in Pasadena has been the Gooden Center, a nonprofit treatment organization providing residential, outpatient and transitional living for individuals with substance abuse issues and/or psychiatric disorders, as well as their families.
The Gooden Center has seen a sharp spike in people seeking treatment during the pandemic and experienced the largest admission intake in its 60-year history, said COO Brandon Brewer.
“The year started like any other year, but by mid-March, when this thing started becoming ubiquitous in the media and everyone began realizing what a serious situation we were facing, we began focusing on management and cultivating our staff,” Brewer recalled.
“Then, the phone started ringing off the hook.”
The Gooden Center knew it was needed more than ever, and quickly developed COVID-19 operating protocols to safely treat patients and keep staff healthy. While the residential programs continued admissions and treatment, follow-up therapies and family care moved online to a virtual platform. Regular COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment, temperature checks, social distancing and high-grade sanitizing became mandated in a systematized approach — whatever it took, Brewer said, to keep the Center’s seven facilities up and running.
“We have the philosophy that you do not get sick in isolation and you don’t get better in isolation,” CEO Thomas McNulty said. “The pandemic certainly provided some unique challenges for us — we realized early that we needed to respond now — we couldn’t wait for the government. We’re a health organization, so families have to be assured when they’re sending a loved one into our care that it is a safe recovery environment.”
ADDICTION IS FAMILY DISEASE
With a focus on mental health, the Gooden Center nonprofit provides a continuum of care to patients and their families for life, offering individual and group therapies, support and family inclusive opportunities. Founded in 1962 by five members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Bishop Robert Gooden, today the Gooden Center has treated more than 11,000 men, women and children. Its family-focused approach, in particular, has long set the center apart from other treatment facilities: on a typical (non-pandemic) day, throngs of children can be seen playing outside, and families crowd around the dinner table. Men will take the children out so the wives can meet alone, and vice versa.
“The family program is part of the DNA of what we do here. We put families back together,” McNulty said.
That approach has been shown to work, Brewer added, as families need support in helping a loved one. Many have spent years trying to help a family member on their own with an addiction. When someone arrives at Gooden Center, it’s usually because they’ve exhausted every other available option or suffered a catastrophic event that has led them to seek residential treatment, such as a job loss, an arrest, a DUI.
“It’s a major decision for somebody to come here; nobody comes here because things are going great,” Brewer said. “Typically, an individual has been held up, shepherded by their family. So while the individual comes into the safe place where we are — accepted with open arms, hit with wonderful food, great psychiatry, clinical fellowship, brotherhood building and filled with love — meanwhile, the family is left with their own PTSD.”
Often, the spouses and children have been abandoned or abused, walking on eggshells, trying to support their loved one but completely untrained to do so and enabling their co-dependent.
“This is a family disease. The family has been suffering almost as much as the individual. So we can’t leave them behind. And we want the individuals to get back to their lives as soon as possible, but we have to build that family up and lay the foundation for them to start healing themselves,” he added. “It takes a concerted, focused effort on the family to give them the support, and anything short of treating the entire family isn’t doing any justice or real ethical care to treating that individual.”
The family therapy groups and support services are free for life at the Gooden Center, unlike many other treatment centers, whether it is for mental health or substance abuse issues. This can be a financial challenge for the nonprofit, but one that is passionately upheld as a core standard, McNulty said.
THE COST OF TREATMENT
Perhaps the best way to look at the cost of treatment, McNulty said, is to look at the price of non-treatment: Statistics show that one in eight U.S. emergency room visits are related to a mental illness, and that mental illnesses exceed $1 trillion each year in medical costs and lost productivity, with only 43.3% of individuals with mental illnesses ever seeking treatment.
In addition, it is estimated that nearly one in five Americans, or 46 million U.S. adults and children, suffer from a mental illness or disorder. According to additional data from the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, there is a return of $7 to $1, meaning that for every dollar that is put into treatment, there is a $7 return to society.
“These are chronic disorders for life, but if you treat it, you will save money in the long run,” he said, adding that the nonprofit spends a lot of resources on education and advocacy surrounding not just cost, but also multitier advocacy with insurers, employers, schools, courts and families. “We obviously have HIPPA rules, privacy rules that that we absolutely respect, but within those rules we are advocating nonstop.”
Navigating the ever-changing insurance landscape is a constant challenge for the nonprofit, he acknowledged, especially as insurance groups cover less and less when it comes to substance abuse recovery programs. This is where grant funding, fundraising and a tight budgeting become critical to offer accessible, affordable care for the Pasadena community, he added.
“This is a golden asset for Pasadena and we would love to have more support … we are not a [luxury] Malibu treatment center. We have figured out how to provide our services with insurance reimbursement and we live and die off that,” he said. “The human mind doesn’t recover in some scripted 30-day period, it can take longer to change and recover. So clinically we’re able to provide a whole bunch of different treatment modalities that have been proven to be very effective.”
Others have taken notice, including organizations such as the Ayrshire Foundation, which recently granted $30,000 to the Gooden Center for its COVID-19 response efforts, including staff training, additional IT/telehealth infrastructure, and hygiene of facilities and PPE for staff. With these tools, the Gooden Center will be able to continue in its mission of providing effective care and support to those with mental health and substance use issues during the pandemic, said Richard Hirrel, the foundation’s board vice president.
“The Ayrshire Foundation made a grant to the Gooden Center because it is a pleasure to enable an organization that has helped to bring serenity and empowerment to some of our friends,” Hirrel said.
BREAKING ADDICTION CYCLE
The Gooden Center depends on its locations in Pasadena and La Crescenta to offer more people treatment locally within the San Gabriel Valley, keeping families close.
“The more people that have access to the treatment we can provide at the Gooden Center, the healthier we all are and the safer we all are,” said George Ricciardella, director of development. “One of my primary motivations in working here is that I feel what we do for the community at large is about health and safety.”
Ricciardella is admittedly passionate about his work, and as an alumni of the center, has witnessed many men, women and children change their lives. The cycle of addiction can span generations, another good reason to treat it as a family disease, he said.
“I have, without a doubt, seen this cycle stopped in its tracks at the doorstep of the Gooden Center. There’s a moment sometimes in between meetings, with the children all around and the wives coming in and out and dinner being served. … You realize it’s not just about drugs and alcohol, mental health or medicinal compliance; it’s about living life. It’s about giving this wholeness to be able to reenter life.”
The Gooden Center urges anyone seeking information or help for substance abuse, mental health and psychiatric issues to call its 24-hour hotline at (800) 931-9884.