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Helping Bermuda combat addiction problems

Family dynamics: Drug addiction counsellor Isis Wellman says people in Bermuda tend to keep their problems quiet (Photograph supplied)

It’s not easy going back to school at 39.

But drug addiction counsellor Isis Wellman is determined to do so to combat what she sees as Bermuda’s growing tide of drug addiction.

Mrs Wellman works for the Turning Point Substance Abuse Programme. She recently won a Duperreault Fellowship to pursue an online master’s degree in clinical mental health with Walden University.

The Fellowship is an endowment fund supporting the professional development of people working in, or studying, the treatment of substance abuse.

Mrs Wellman moved here 11 years ago with her Bermudian husband, Sacar.

She found the family dynamics very different to what she had experienced in her native Curacao.

“In Bermuda, a lot of families work hard to keep their problems quiet,” she said.

“The outside of their house looks OK, family members look well-groomed, but there may be hunger, abuse or drug addiction within the household.

“Families protect each other to keep things quiet.”

The Island’s failing economy has also had an impact, according to the counsellor.

“We see a lot of people with anxiety and depression,” she said. “Sometimes people self-medicate.

“They lose their jobs and they don’t know how to sustain their families. They start drinking to try to cope. I have seen alcohol abuse, in particular, increase since the economy worsened.”

Through her master’s degree, she is hoping to learn more about treating addicts with mental health issues.

“A lot of people that I deal with have dual diagnoses,” she said. “They might have a drug addiction and a mental health issue such as depression, schizophrenia or anxiety.

“The master’s degree will definitely give me the tools to better deal with that.

“I would say that of my caseload, at least 30 per cent are people struggling with dual diagnoses.”

Her family was a little nervous when she first became a counsellor.

“People think it is dangerous working with people under the influence,” she said.

“Sometimes it is. I am barely 5ft tall and I’m often dealing with male clients much bigger than myself.

“But beyond that, you are dealing with a person who is in crisis and needs help.

“They are often suffering from things that happened to them in the past.

“Some days it is like a roller coaster, but in general it is very satisfying. I am helping people to find hope again.

“It can be hard to leave it behind at the end of the day.

“Counsellors need to have a strong support system around them, especially when they are first starting out.”

Television programmes about anxiety, depression and drug addiction sparked Mrs Wellman’s interest in counselling.

She got a cold dash of reality at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

“I volunteered with a campus group called Benton Harbor Street Ministries,” she said. “The shock came when we went to this one area of Benton Harbour known for its high crime rate.

“We were encouraged to walk two or three abreast to stay safe.”

Many of the people she talked with were going through hard times.

“You never would think people were going through so much,” she said.

“We met a woman who was blind. All her doors and windows were sealed because she had to keep herself safe.

“Inside her house was graffiti and it was really dirty. She was really lonely and wanted someone to talk to.

“I learnt that reality is a lot deeper than what you see on television. People’s problems are more complex.

“Sometimes people don’t like to ask for help, and sometimes they do ask for help and no one responds.”

She worked at the Madison Centre for Children in South Bend, Indiana, before moving to Bermuda. Many of the children she worked with there had been impacted by family drug and alcohol abuse.

Her concerns have deepened now that she has two children of her own.

“For sure, it does make you more worried,” she said. “My children are little but you hear stories about abuse in families.

“You hear about how some people are exposed to drugs and alcohol in school or by family members. It makes you think about your own family.

“It makes you a bit more vigilant about how you help your children to understand life in the community.”

Mrs Wellman’s ultimate aim is to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology.

“I was in shock and in tears when I received the Fellowship,” Mrs Wellman said. “Getting my master’s was something I had so looked forward to.

“I am so grateful, because I’m still paying off my bachelor’s degree. It’s the second time I have received the Fellowship. They also helped me get my drug addiction counselling certification a few years ago.”