Meet Martha Mooneyham, bilingual addiction counselor reflecting on Hispanic Heritage Month
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
National Hispanic Heritage Month begins Sept. 15 and is a time to celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of Americans whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Because Hispanic Heritage Month overlaps with National Recovery Month, it’s also a time to reflect on the intersections of addiction recovery and Hispanic, or Latinx, culture. With that in mind, we checked in with one of Hazelden Betty Ford’s amazing counselors, Martha Mooneyham, MSN, RN, PHN, LADC. Based in Minnesota, she is also a nurse and nurse educator. Martha works with both English- and Spanish-speaking patients and families, and is the primary facilitator for the organization’s Virtual Family Program in Spanish, which launched in January 2022. It is one of multiple new Spanish-language services that Hazelden Betty Ford offers as we seek to do more to meet the substance use and mental health needs of our Hispanic and Latinx communities.
Q: What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?
It’s a time to notice and celebrate all the wonderful things that the Hispanic people and culture bring and add to our country and to this wonderful “melting pot” that we have become! Each culture has its own beautiful customs and idiosyncrasies that enrich America. The Hispanic community is well-known for our love of family, our strong faith, great food and fun disposition. So many of us love getting together with family and celebrating with flavorful and delicious food and amazing music, which often turns into a dancing party, especially when there are young children in the gathering!
Q: Why do you choose to work in health care at Hazelden Betty Ford?
I do what I do because I love health care (particularly the field of substance use disorder (SUD) treatment and recovery) and because I also love the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and what it stands for. As a nurse and nursing educator, I’ve asked many students why they chose to become nurses, and I almost universally hear: “because I want to help people.” I have found that in the recovery and the mental health community, this is also a very popular answer but with an added important detail …
In our field, many addiction counselors and other clinicians feel an extra-special calling because we either have experienced a substance use disorder ourselves or have been affected by a friend’s or loved one’s. There is a humility and an attitude of gratitude that seems to be prevalent in the addiction-recovery community that I have never seen anywhere else. I really believe this is due to having experienced the pain, loss and grief this disease causes and then, quite often, the hope and healing of the recovery journey. When, through recovery, we find meaning in the suffering, we then feel compelled to give this gift to others. We try to help those who are still suffering find the hope and courage to heal. And this is what I love about our field and the mission and spirit of Hazelden Betty Ford. I find the work to be noble, meaningful and fulfilling. My personal motivation is to use everything I am and have learned to help save lives, marriages and families from this devastating disease and its consequences.
Q: Can you describe Hazelden Betty Ford’s “Virtual Family Program in Spanish” and how folks can access it?
We are now bringing to Spanish-speaking communities in the United States and the world (we have helped families in Spain, Costa Rica, Colombia, Puerto Rico and elsewhere) the same amazing family programming we previously offered only in English. In addition to being delivered in Spanish by a Hispanic native (me!), the content has been adapted to be more culturally relevant and relatable. We have had people from all walks of life participate, including mental health professionals seeking to learn more about how they can help the families of their patients.
The connections and the healing have been amazing, and the gratitude immense! The need is great … in Spanish.
Research tells us how crucial it is for recovery to involve the family of our patients (or anyone experiencing SUD). We also have learned that the better equipped family members are, the better they can support their loved one. Family members often suffer in a parallel way and need help and recovery for themselves. We help by teaching them about the disease, how it affects the family, and how they can set healthy boundaries and communicate skillfully and effectively. This empowers the family, gives them hope and courage, and helps them influence the dynamics of their situation through the one thing they are able to control most (their own behavior).
Hazelden Betty Ford’s Virtual Family Program in Spanish is offered on the last Wednesday of each month from 10:30 AM to 6:00 PM CST. Participants can register on our website or by emailing email@example.com.
As an immigrant to the U.S., with my cultural and spiritual heritage, and with my professional background as a registered nurse and a nursing educator, and as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and virtual family program clinician who leads both English- and Spanish-language groups, I have been fortunate to gain a uniquely diverse perspective on SUD treatment and recovery.
I see addiction as an “equal-opportunity” disease that does not discriminate against gender, age, race, ethnicity, culture, socio-economical background, religious beliefs, etc. With that in mind, I also think treatment and recovery support need to be offered in diverse ways. At Hazelden Betty Ford, our Virtual Family Program in Spanish — and also our new Minnesota Virtual Intensive Outpatient Treatment Program in Spanish (which we are working hard to expand to other states) — represent an acceleration of efforts to “diversify” how we offer help and who we serve.
Q: Beyond language, what other cultural considerations go into leading a Spanish-language family program?
As I mentioned earlier, it is very important to not only speak the language (and speak it fluidly) but to have — if at all possible — a native Hispanic program leader who understands, at least generally, the things that make members of the Spanish-speaking community who they are. Having lived in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic before I moved to the U.S., I am able to draw on a lot of experiences that help me connect with my patients and participants. Understanding the role of the family and faith in the Latin American culture is crucial. For example, the idea of your children “leaving the nest” as soon as they turn 18 is not necessarily what we expect or desire in Hispanic families. There are also some differences between how Hispanic families that live in the U.S function compared with families that are still in their native countries because of how American culture influences family dynamics. I am grateful for my years living in the U.S., which help me understand how this dynamic affects the Hispanic family here.
Q: What has been most rewarding about pioneering Hazelden Betty Ford’s first Spanish-language family program, and what has been the biggest challenge?
So many things have been rewarding! I am working with an amazing team! I finally find myself being able to help people in two languages! After 36 years living in this wonderful country, I finally have an opportunity to use my Spanish for something not only needed, but so fulfilling for me! I am so blessed to have this opportunity to help meet a great need that exists in the Spanish-speaking community in our country and, as we have experienced with our attendees, in other parts of the world as well.
Regarding the second part of the question …
It is a free program thanks to the generosity of our wonderful donors, so income is not a barrier.
It is virtual, so geographic access is not a barrier.
It is 100% in Spanish, so now language is not a barrier either.
One challenge we have identified is time. Many full-time workers can’t attend a daylong program during the work-week, so we’re exploring options and remedies to that barrier.
The biggest challenge of all, however, is awareness. People don’t yet know the program exists. So, if you’re reading this, please help spread the word! :)