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#GandaraAtWork Episode 5: Mark Huntington, Director of Training

We’re joined for #GandaraAtWork Episode 5 by Mark Huntington, the director of training at the Gándara Center.

Mark brings enthusiasm, energy, and good humor to his role. As the director of training, he’s tasked with ensuring the safety and security of both staff and clients alike. This includes hosting activities like sessions on how to administer CPR, approaches to de-escalation, and general crisis management.

With almost 30-years of experience in the field, Mark is accustomed to working in high-stress situations. He’s spent time working with inner-city youth gangs, Green Berets, State Police, and corrections officers; suffice it to say, Mark  is used to intensity.

Over the years, he’s developed techniques to help identify problematic situations and best approaches for response. It’s not an exact science but science does come into play: when an issue occurs, Mark calculates how an individual neurologically processes a situation and then he uses a bit of intuition to cool everyone and everything down.

Outside of Gándara, Mark is passionate about arts and culture. But don’t take my word for it. We’ll let Mark take it from here:


By |March 18th, 2019|People|Comments Off on #GandaraAtWork Episode 5: Mark Huntington, Director of Training

#GandaraAtWork Episode 4: Rahiza, Chelsea, and Audra of our Outpatient Clinic

This week, #GandaraAtWork episode 4 features Rahiza, Chelsea, and Audra from our Outpatient Clinic in Springfield.

Rahiza is a mental health clinician and serves children and adults alike; people who suffer mental health disorders, substance use issues, or both. Between her work at our outpatient clinic, Rahiza volunteers at the Brightwood Elementary School. Here she tends to kindergartners through sixth-graders. She also volunteers at the nearby Brightwood clinic where she assists suboxone clients. In her spare time, Rahiza enjoys being outdoors where she can hike, bike, and camp. When she’s not kicking butt as a stellar clinician, she’s doing it with martial arts as an avid student of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Chelsea is the outpatient clinic’s director of quality assurance. Her workday is a mix of hands-on and administrative tasks to keep the clinic running smoothly. She supports front office staff, clinicians, and reviews everyone’s various needs and documentation. Chelsea puts her creativity on full display at the clinic. One of her hobbies is doing arts and crafts projects; she uses every opportunity she can to bring this to work, including our holiday door decorating contest, employee appreciation day, and all sorts of other celebrations.

Audra is the director of clinical services. Like Chelsea, her responsibilities often vary from day to day. She organizes group and individual therapy sessions, supports staff, and sets up clinical work in the community such as at schools or even courts. For Audra, making treatment services accessible to clients is among her top priorities. At home, her priority is her 10-month old daughter. The two do everything together, not the least of which is baby yoga.

By |March 6th, 2019|People|Comments Off on #GandaraAtWork Episode 4: Rahiza, Chelsea, and Audra of our Outpatient Clinic

#GandaraAtWork Episode 3: Lavagn Claudio, Senior Family Partner

Welcome #GandaraAtWork episode 3! This week meet Lavagn Claudio, senior family partner at our Community Service Agency (CSA) division.

Lavagn was born and raised in Springfield. A hard worker and dedicated to giving back to his community, Lavagn worked through school and up the Gándara ladder to get where he is today.

He enjoys infusing street art and urban art with his day-to-day responsibilities. Take a look around his office and you’ll find no shortage of comics, hip hop, paintings, and sketches. One of his favorite aspects of Gándara is that the organization lets him express himself the way he chooses.

His passion for arts and culture helps him connect with Gándara clients, especially youths. Lavagn is always looking for ways to improve his community, his neighbors, his peers, and himself.

By |February 27th, 2019|People|Comments Off on #GandaraAtWork Episode 3: Lavagn Claudio, Senior Family Partner

#GandaraAtWork Episode 2: Kristen Owens, Quality Assurance Specialist

Episode 2 of #GandaraAtWork has dropped!

Meet Kristen, the quality assurance specialist for our Adolescent & Family Services (AFS) division.

A native of Enfield, CT, Kristen has been with the Gándara Center since 2008. She started her career as a preschool teacher and never expected to end up at a mental health and addiction services nonprofit. But when Kristen’s friend Tami Davis, now director of the AFS division, knew that Kristen was looking for a new experience, she saw that Kristen’s skills matched the demands of the job.

Now, 10 years later, Kristen ensures the quality of Gándara staff and the care for those who rely on its services. From internal investigations to system checks to licensing and renewal, Kristen’s work is vital to the success of the organization.

When she’s not making life better for Gandara staff and clients, you may find her spending quality family time with nieces and nephews at home or traveling with them the world.

By |February 27th, 2019|People|Comments Off on #GandaraAtWork Episode 2: Kristen Owens, Quality Assurance Specialist

#GandaraAtWork Episode 1: Dianna Rodriguez, HR Receptionist

The Gándara Center is dedicated to providing mental health and substance use treatment services to the most vulnerable populations in Massachusetts. We know that without hundreds of employees who work for Gándara across the state, we wouldn’t achieve the long lasting recovery and community engagement that have been the hallmark of us and our clientele. So we came up with #GandaraAtWork.

We want to introduce you to our staff. They’re the ones who work tirelessly to promote the Gándara mission. In these short videos, you’ll meet staffers from our facilities statewide to get a sense of who they are, what they do, and why they do it.

In our inaugural episode, say hello to Dianna. Dianna joined Gándara last year and is the HR receptionist at our administrative office in West Springfield. If you ever visit the admin office, Dianna is always the first to welcome you in with her warm and vibrant personality.

Take a moment to get to know Dianna. We’ll be back every week with more employees for you to meet and stories to share


By |February 20th, 2019|People|Comments Off on #GandaraAtWork Episode 1: Dianna Rodriguez, HR Receptionist

Why We Run: To Boost Mental Health, Raise Awareness, & Combat Stigmas

Exercise is a great way for people to take mental health improvement into their own hands. Don’t get us wrong: working out is not a cure-all for mental illness and is not a definitive treatment option. But it allows people who suffer from mental health disorders to be proactive, to take control of a potentially dangerous situation. Perhaps most importantly, it sets into motion chemicals in the brain that induce feelings of euphoria which combat feelings of despair.

The notion that exercise is a constructive way to counterbalance feelings of, for example, depression or anxiety is rooted in evidence-based science. Studies have been published that show a relationship between increased physical activity and low rates of major depressive disorder.

One such recent study was co-authored by Karmel W. Choi, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital, and Jordan Smoller, MD, ScD, director of the Mass. General Hospital Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit and a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“On average, doing more physical activity appears to protect against developing depression,” Dr. Choi said in a statement. “Any activity appears to be better than none; our rough calculations suggest that replacing sitting with 15 minutes of a heart-pumping activity like running, or with an hour of moderately vigorous activity, is enough to produce the average increase in accelerometer data that was linked to a lower depression risk.”

Related: Save the Date: Our 5th Annual Frozen Yogurt 5K is on August 25

According to Yale scientist Adam Mourad Chekroud, PhD, exercise is a key opportunity for individuals to develop protective factors against depression, maybe even more so than prescription medications. In fact, he says “Antidepressants are not universally effective, and many patients undergo a trial-and-error process to find the right regimen. Psychological therapies are about equally effective and can be expensive and difficult to access.”

A big part of this is the so-called runner’s high. This sensation is caused by a rush of pleasure-causing endorphins in the brain, in addition to endocannabinoids, a chemical that acts like naturally synthesized THC (the main chemical component in marijuana).

Cardio workouts can also generate new brain cells and improve cognitive performance, which has been linked to low rates of Alzheimer’s. It also has the added benefit of providing an outlet for stress, a time for self-reflection, and, especially on sunny days, an opportunity for your body to produce Vitamin D.

For these reasons and more, Gándara has hosted a 5K road race in Northampton for the past four years. This year, on August 25, will be our 5th annual Frozen Yogurt 5K.

We run to not only give participants the chance to experience all the health benefits that accompany running, but also to raise awareness around mental illness, substance use disorders, their stigmas, and the various services and treatments available to those in need.

Register today! Kids 12 and under run for free, and all runners—and walkers—get a free GoBerry Frozen Yogurt. Sign up by August 14 and you’ll be receive a free t-shirt. Registration on race day will be available beginning at 8:00 a.m. Credit and debit cards will be accepted. The staging area is on the Courthouse Lawn across from the Calvin Theater. For GPS purposes please use 19 King Street Northampton, MA.

Leashed pets are also welcome to run for free.

Our 5K is officially timed by RaceWire. Medals will be awarded to the top three finishers in each of the following categories: Male, Female, 12 and under and 50 and over.

For any questions regarding the event—or for those interested in having their business sponsor this year’s race­—please contact Lisa Brecher at 413-296-5256 or lbrecher@gandaracenter.org.

By |January 31st, 2019|Events, News, Science|Comments Off on Why We Run: To Boost Mental Health, Raise Awareness, & Combat Stigmas

De-escalation & Crisis Management Training: How to Defuse the Situation

Mark Huntington likes to begin training sessions by explaining why everyone calls him Mark H. It’s really quite simple. When he started at Gándara, there were two other Marks and so as a point of clarification, he adopted the name Mark H and it stuck. He tells this story because it helps create a connection with him and his trainees, a mutual understanding. They don’t feel like they’re sitting through a lecture. Connection is an important part of Mark H.’s de-escalation and crisis management training sessions, one of which he held on Friday, January 4. Empathy is a necessity.

De-escalation prevents confrontational situations from becoming aggressive and violent. “It’s not about trying to fix the situation,” said Mark H., “It’s about trying to survive the situation.” What he means is sometimes when we put a lot of energy into trying to fix a situation, that energy can increase the tension between you and the other person. He added: our actions and attitudes have an impact on the actions and attitudes of others. Sometimes your approach can be a part of the problem.

verbal agitation scale

Mark H. has of 25 years of experience in the field. Much of that has been focused on de-escalation. From his time working with inner-city gang youths to being yelled at by Green Berets, State Police, and corrections officers (to name just a few), Mark H. has found that de-escalation is as much about science as it is about intuition. People who suffer trauma, for example, have difficulty with logic and coping because that part of their brain—the part that triggers the fight, flight, freeze, submit, or cry for help reflex—has been deeply affected.

“Be what you want to see,” said Mark H. If you want someone to calm down, be calm; if you want them to listen, be a listener. It’s what he calls an integrated exercise, and he uses a scale to assess and respond to different types of verbal agitation.

At the low end of the scale, you might encounter someone who’s verbally spontaneous, intermittently silent, or talking to his/herself. In that instance, you should communicate your concern and express empathy. You might have someone who’s inquisitive, suspicious, or doubting (e.g., “Why would they do that? What’s their problem? Are they after me?”). Instead of simply communicating concern, try to provide them with answers to their questions while you acknowledge their feelings. At the high end of the scale, if the person is challenging or verbally threatening, it’s best to disengage and to seek safety and/or support from fellow staff members; sometimes a co-worker brings a different attitude or perspective to the situation that helps defuse it.

If such a situation arises at the workplace, the most important thing to do is to remain calm. You need to be able to think rationally, to analyze the situation and determine best approaches. Always, too, be empathetic to the person. You never know what they’ve been through and how it’s affected them.

By |January 7th, 2019|Events, People, Science|Comments Off on De-escalation & Crisis Management Training: How to Defuse the Situation

4 New Years Resolution Ideas to Improve Your Mental Health [Infographic]

New Years resolutions can seem daunting. They’re a set of goals or ideals to aspire to, but sometimes even the attainable ones can feel out of reach. This is especially true if you suffer from mental health disorders, like depression or anxiety, for example.

Don’t let the new year get you down. We want to help you kick off 2019 with confidence and hope. Let’s use this as an opportunity to take small steps towards self improvement. These can be coupled with therapy, counseling, or whichever treatment service works best for you. So take a look at some of the New Years resolution ideas below; they’re tied together by the themes of self-reflection, neurological balance, and finding value in people and/or activities.

Happy New Year, everyone.


New Years resolutions ideas_mental health

By |December 28th, 2018|Science|Comments Off on 4 New Years Resolution Ideas to Improve Your Mental Health [Infographic]

Co-Occurring Mental Health & Substance Use Disorders, and Patriots WR Josh Gordon

On Thursday, New England Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon announced on Twitter that he is stepping away from the game to focus on his mental health. According to a report, Gordon also violated the terms of the NFL’s substance use policy. His decision brings up an important conversation about co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.

We applaud Gordon’s decision and support him as he seeks long-lasting recovery. Earlier this year, Gordon missed training camp while he sought counseling for anxiety. It’s quite common for someone with mental health issues to also have substance use issues. Gordon has been suspended in the past for repeated violation of the league’s substance use policy.

Co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders affect approximately 8 million people in the United States. They’re especially dangerous because one disorder can mask the symptoms of the other, and too often people will seek treatment for only one of them. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “the consequences of undiagnosed, untreated, or undertreated co-occurring disorders can lead to a higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness, incarceration, medical illnesses, suicide, or even early death.”

The following are signs and symptoms to look out for, but these can vary from person to person:

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Using substances under dangerous conditions
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Loss of control over use of substances
  • Developing a high tolerance and withdrawal symptoms
  • Feeling like you need a drug to be able to function

Treatment options will also vary from person to person, but there are ways to treat both a mental health issue and substance use issue.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests the following services, as per consultation with a therapist, counselor, or doctor:

  • Detox
  • Inpatient rehab
  • Residential housing
  • Psychotherapy
  • Support groups
  • Medications

We at the Gándara Center understand the immediate need for treating co-occurring disorders. We’re currently hiring to staff a 16-bed enhanced residential rehabilitation services program for women with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.

The program, based in Ludlow, will take a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment, employing evidence-based and peer support methods including community, clinical, psychiatric, and medication-assisted treatment services. Wellness resources and activities will help patients build protective measures against co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders, and expose them to social skill-building opportunities as a pathway to achieving long-term recovery. These may include art, music, and fitness events; community fellowships; and mental health support groups.

We identified 14 Chestnut Place, the former location of the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts, as the site for the program. The opening date has yet to be determined.


Featured image via Erik Drost(CC BY 2.0)
By |December 20th, 2018|News, People|Comments Off on Co-Occurring Mental Health & Substance Use Disorders, and Patriots WR Josh Gordon

3 Reasons You Should Donate to Aventura!, our Western Mass Summer Camp Program [Infographic]

The testimonials we’ve heard from parents and kids who spent time at our Western Mass summer camp program are heartwarming. There are so many benefits to supporting an experience like this. It’s all about providing our local youth with an opportunity to grow in different ways. Kids can meet new friends, make new memories, and enjoy a level of self-confidence and self-esteem they may not usually get to at home. Since 2016, we’ve had the privilege to send almost 145 kids to camp.

Last year, we gave camp scholarships to 40 kids. This year with your help, we think we can do better.  Here are 3 big reasons you should donate to our Aventura! Summer Camp Scholarship program:

3 reasons to donate

By |December 19th, 2018|Events|Comments Off on 3 Reasons You Should Donate to Aventura!, our Western Mass Summer Camp Program [Infographic]