By MELANIE KILGORE-HILL
Renewal House Keeping Families Together During Addiction Treatment
For many women, family is everything.
But for those with substance use disorders, keeping family together through the treatment process can be a challenge that delays or prevents women from seeking help. One Nashville agency understands the importance of keeping children close while moms receive help. Each year, more than 500 women and children get a new start at Renewal House.
"What makes Renewal House so unique is a woman can participate in addiction treatment while living independently in her own apartment with her children," said Renewal House CEO Pamela Sessions.
Since 1996, Renewal House has treated more than 7,000 women and children through its residential and outpatient programs. The north Nashville campus welcomes mothers with children newborn to age 10. While moms are in treatment during the day, their children attend a local school or daycare.
Women are encouraged to stay as long as they're working on treatment goals. "We want them to take their time and do it right," Sessions explained. While most recovery programs maintain a 42 percent success rate, 60 to 70 percent of clients at Renewal House are successful in treatment, meaning they become sober, improve parenting skills, identify a vocational track and find stable housing.
Clients at Renewal House find a welcoming, yet structured, environment. During the week, women adhere to a schedule of morning meditation, therapeutic groups, 12-step meetings, case management sessions and life skills development. Weekends are reserved for family time on the playground, engaging in activities with their children, doing homework and managing their own apartments.
"Being in this environment allows families to create structure in their life, which is so important as many of them have not had that previously," Sessions said. "Many of our moms have never lived independently or parented before coming to Renewal House."
Like many treatment centers, Renewal House has seen an uptick throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with 60 women currently on a waiting list. Pre-pandemic, it wasn't uncommon for women to have some sobriety upon admission. Now, many arrive having used the same day.
"The acuity level is a lot higher than it was prior to the pandemic," said Savak Millis, LPC-MHSP, director of programs at Renewal House. "The frequency in which clients are using substances, along with the amount used, has sharply increased, causing the need for more intensive services."
To better meet needs, Renewal House is undergoing an expansion to accommodate 100 residential clients a year - double their current capacity. The three-story, 30,000-square-foot facility will provide an additional 34 apartments, along with meeting rooms and office space. Completion is expected early 2022.
While a lot has changed during Renewal House's 25 years of operation, Millis said the stigma surrounding pregnancy and addiction is still tough to overcome. "There's not a more stigmatized population than a pregnant woman injecting a substance," she said, noting that many don't associate a woman who has recently given birth with someone at risk of overdose: a reality responsible for a staggering 33 percent of maternal deaths in Tennessee associated with substance use.
"Renewal House stands in the gap between what could be death for these ladies and/or a fulfilling life with their child," said Millis.
"As primary caregivers, women are often more likely than men to have to choose between treatment and their children," added Sessions. "This is not a choice that Renewal House ever wants a woman to have to make. Our clients are proof that mothers with substance use disorders love their children and make great sacrifices to keep the family intact."
Renewal House staff utilizes a judgment-free approach - one that medical
providers can adopt when working with those at-risk. "My hope is that the medical community will keep substance use in mind and ask the uncomfortable questions while remembering that there's not one profile of what a person with a substance use disorder may look like," Sessions said.
That means asking questions with kindness and empathy rather than judgment. "When women feel judged, they shut down," Millis noted, adding providers are sometimes afraid of having these conversations because they can be biased by their own personal feelings. Reframing these discussions often means changing the language from "addiction" to "substance use disorder," and focusing on the disease. This shift puts medical professionals back in their comfort zone of treating a disease and not a choice.
Renewal House receives most of its funding through state grants, private foundations and individual donors. Their signature event, A Renewal House Thanksgiving, raises awareness of substance use disorders while generating funds to support the agency.
Millis said individuals with substance use disorders are frequent consumers in the TennCare system, spending more dollars on care than someone who is healthy. "That's why supporters believe in investing in solutions rather than perpetuating a negative cycle," she said.
Renewal House challenges the notion that women with substance use disorders aren't anyone else's problem. "It's everyone's problem," Sessions said. "The problem of addiction has an impact on our entire community, from foster care to the legal and healthcare systems. Investing in resources to create a healthier community is so important. These are your tax dollars at work. What do you want to do with them?"