December 13, 2022
“Ponce” has been a patient at Venice Family Clinic for nearly 20 years. Her family gets their primary care with us, and she and her daughter, now a teen, were a part of the Clinic’s Children First Early Head Start program years ago. She has also taken yoga classes through our Health Education department.
But all had not been well with Ponce. For most of her life, the 43-year-old had felt angry, on-edge, stressed.
“I get mad easily, and I have a strong personality. I tend to be very up front. If I have a problem with something, I’m going to be vocal about it,” she said.
Until one day when she had a visit with her primary care clinician, Dr. Victor Mleczko. Ponce had been feeling especially angry and frustrated, and it was affecting her ability to sleep.
“I realized that my mental health was affecting my physical health,” she said. “I needed to do something about it.”
Dr. Mleczko referred her to the Clinic’s Behavioral Health department, where she qualified for a stress management program for patients in My Health LA, a health care program from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services for people with low incomes, between the ages of 26 and 49, and not eligible for health insurance due to a lack of immigration documentation.
“The undocumented population often falls under the radar when it comes to mental health,” said Damarise Luevanos, a Behavioral Health staff member trained in the LA County Department of Mental Health’s stress management curriculum. “Many places don’t accept My Health LA for therapy, and these patients can’t afford to pay for it themselves. This special program makes mental health services available to My Health LA patients at no extra cost.”
In the program, which consists of eight to 10 sessions per patient and are available by phone, Luevanos teaches people how to manage the stress of daily life, including that from work, family and finances. She offers breathing techniques to calm down when feeling agitated and education on the importance of self-care and positive thinking. Luevanos will also connect patients to the Clinic’s Resource Case Management department and outside resources for help getting food, paying for other necessities and accessing public benefits.
Connecting the dots
The biggest issue for Ponce was being able to calm down when she got angry. Luevanos helped her retrain her mind to focus on something positive when she got upset, and she taught Ponce breathing and meditation exercises, which she continues to use today.
Luevanos also helped Ponce realize that trauma she experienced as a child caused her to create a defense mechanism of being on alert all the time.
“I hadn’t connected the abuse I experienced as a child to how I act today until I began talking to Damarise,” Ponce said. “She helped me see that my aggression was my way of showing people that I wasn’t someone you could step on. She also helped me see that I didn’t need to always be defensive in every situation.”
Luevanos is amazed at how much improvement she sees with each patient she works with, even after just a few sessions.
“Having someone they can talk to and confide in, especially in the Hispanic community where mental health isn’t emphasized, has made a difference for these patients,” Luevanos said. “This program helps them learn that mental health care has value. They’ve thanked me for teaching them that mental health is important, and I always tell them that whatever improvement they see speaks to their own efforts. At the end of the day, it’s up to them.”
A new day
Since taking part in the program, Ponce’s life has improved.
The stress-induced migraines that were causing her insomnia have greatly decreased in frequency, allowing her – and her husband – to sleep better. She is now taking an interest in trying new things, including gardening, taking walks in her neighborhood, and finally picking up that book that has been sitting on her nightstand for two years. And Ponce has improved her relationship with her family, most notably with her 15-year-old daughter: Now that Ponce is less likely to be easily irritated or wear an annoyed expression on her face, her daughter is more comfortable talking to and spending time with her mother.
“I’m grateful for the services I’ve received from Venice Family Clinic and for the patience from their staff,” Ponce said. “And most of all that a program like the one for stress management is available for people like me because it has changed a lot in my life.”