SunCloud Health offers integrative, intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization for adolescents and adults of all genders – “Supporting your desire to live free from self-destructive behavior as you embark on a life long journey of recovery”.

A Personal Statement, by Dr. Kim Dennis, on Safeguarding Patient Care

In recent weeks several people have reached out to me to say something about the Chicago Tribune reports of several patients being sexually abused by their therapist at Timberline Knolls.

Though I resigned from TK as CEO and Medical Director nearly four years ago and have no current affiliation with them, I understand why some are looking to me for some sort of statement. My time there, the people I worked with and the residents we helped will forever hold a special place in my heart. I spent a decade pouring my heart and soul in to creating a place where staff and patients alike could come and experience safety, compassion, healing and expert medical care. The entire SunCloud team joins Timberline Knolls in grieving and addressing the abuse that has happened in this situation and elsewhere.  In the spirit of service and being part of the solution, SunCloud will be sponsoring a series of events in the next year about the dynamics of power, sexual abuse and re-enactments specific to treatment organizations, using case examples and exploring best practices to safeguard patient care.

There aren’t really words to describe all that I feel since hearing about these allegations last Summer–sadness, shock, anger, disgust. I’m a psychiatrist, with an excellent academic pedigree as well as the personal experience of having recovered from bulimia/anorexia and alcoholism.  I’m heartbroken that a therapist abused women who had come to a treatment center to heal from abuse, heartbroken that innocent and vulnerable people are sexually assaulted anywhere, let alone there. I’m impacted by stories like these on a personal level, as a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a person who was supposed to take care of me. I have overcome my trauma in large part due to the treatment I received over the course of a decade from a loving, expert, well-boundaried male therapist. I have been a victim myself of abuse of power from a male director while at work, both as a student and later as a practicing professional. Sadly, these problems are pervasive for women in society today. Sadness goes to tragic when this particular brand of exploitation, this particular brand of evil for those who are religiously inclined, occurs at the hand of a treatment professional.

This most recently reported abuse of power, undeniably, is a loss. For anyone ever connected to Timberline Knolls, for the professionals still there who actually are committed to helping women heal, and for the vulnerable people most susceptible to abuse across the world. Most tragically, it is another deep wound, upon layers and layers of other wounds, for the women abused and their families who deserve justice, who deserve to be heard, and seen and cared for in their healing. They deserve to be commended for courageously and miraculously speaking up and taking action.  Finding power in the truth. Finding power in saying no more to silence. Saying no more to oppression. Saying no more to sexual abuse and exploitation.  These women and their families are owed a great debt.

The responsibility we have as professionals is awesome. The healing we can impart is a part of that responsibility. Our duty to first do no harm, is another part of that responsibility. My hope and prayer for the women who have spoken out is that they can somehow, some way have the courage to trust again, somehow some way have the courage to again seek help, to find comfort, safety and peace on their journeys.

It is on all of us in the professional community to build treatment settings that are healthy, safe, well-boundaried, at all levels of our organizations. We cannot do that without personal healing and personal wellness. Unhealed people hurt others.

There are multiple levels of abuse that are indelibly stitched into the fabric of so many institutions. When those institutions serve people with histories of abuse, many safeguards need to be in place in order to manage and detect re-enactments of abuse playing out between staff and patients.  It’s hard sometimes to have hope in the midst of all of these tragedies.  There are examples of systems that have been riddled for decades with this kind of abuse, that finally have been exposed by virtue of victims speaking out in recent years (i.e., the Catholic church, in government, in the entertainment industry, the treatment industry, etc.). Where do we go from here? What do we do from here? All I know is that I pray everyday to be part of the solution. My job is to be awake for it, to continue to work for it, and to believe that in some small way we can offer hope, healing and comfort to those who still suffer.  At the end of the day, all I really care about in the work is helping people in meaningful and sustainable ways.

As the CEO of SunCloud Health, I care about the abused women and men that walk through our door. Staff who work with these vulnerable populations need trauma training, ongoing supervision multiple times a week to address interactions with patients, re-enactments occurring in the milieu, with staff, between staff, and also staff wellness. As a medical professional and CEO, I’ve always keep a hand in direct care and staff supervision. It does equip me with a unique perspective–I have my boots on the ground, in the trenches with patients and staff, and I step back to direct and lead the organization from the 50,000 foot view as its CEO.   One of the qualities we value in our hiring process is staff who have done and continue to do their own healing and ongoing development, both personally and professionally. Two of our institutional values are transparency and the strength we find in community. The work of healing with patients so wounded is intense, and the resources devoted to support that work are also intense. Grueling work, at times thankless, and always at the end of the day exquisitely fulfilling to see the wounded hearts beat with life anew. These are all pieces of the solution–building safe spaces from the top down and the bottom up.

Healthy body, healthy mind: the role of nutrition in recovery

Healthy eating gives our bodies and brains the support they need to carry us through life’s challenges. But for people dealing with a mental health condition, getting the right nutrition can be a real roadblock in the journey to wellness.

At SunCloud Health, we work with many people who need to change the way they eat in order to get their lives back on track. For example, people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol need help rebuilding self-care habits, including nutrition. Those who suffer from depression and other mood disorders also benefit from learning about the gut-brain connection and the nutrients that support mood stability.

People who come to us for help with eating disorders need caring, specialized, individualized support in healing their relationship with food. Our dietitian therapists  work closely with them to deal with a range of issues that are crucial for their recovery.

For those with eating disorders, the road to balanced nutrition isn’t easy

Many people with eating disorders spend a substantial amount of time thinking about food. Many know more about nutrition than just about anyone because they’ve spent so much time studying the calorie and nutrition content of foods and how the body processes these. Some have developed fears of specific foods, refusing to eat them at all – denying themselves of nutrients needed to keep their brains and other internal organs functioning properly.

When we work with people who are recovering from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia and other eating disorders, we focus on healing attitudes and building new habits which serve to normalize one’s relationship with food and body.

Many people with eating disorders have distorted, rigid ideas about what’s healthy when it comes to food, our bodies and exercise. A healthy relationship with food is flexible, including choices from all different food groups. This definition of healthy can include processed foods, high-fat foods and high-sugar foods consumed in moderation.

A healthy relationship with food also includes an active connection with self, intuition, tastes and desires. A healthy relationship with body includes acceptance and belief in weight diversity. A healthy relationship with exercise means being active on a regular basis, engaging in pleasurable movement but without rigid or compulsive thinking or action.

A majority of us – even those of us who don’t suffer from clinical eating disorders – could use help overcoming old, sick, culturally supported beliefs that don’t serve us well. We need to find satisfying new ways to nourish ourselves at the body, mind and soul level.

Embracing good nutrition, one bite at a time

If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, here are 4 crucial things we want you to know.

  1. Food freedom is possible. Thoughts of food don’t have to control your life anymore. With help, you can learn to choose foods and eating behaviors which will sustainably nourish your body and support your total health.
  2. You can transform the way you see your body. We provide a safe space where you can talk about your self-image, and re-experience who you are and how you see yourself. Understanding the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual roots of your negative beliefs about your body began is the first step in developing a more accurate and loving image of yourself that supports your recovery.
  3. Change is possible for you, too — replacing behaviors rooted in fear and isolation with powerful new behaviors rooted in community, love and acceptance. With time, support and practice, you can learn to eat in nourishing rather than self-abusive ways. As your skill level grows, you will find yourself eating comfortably in social settings, choosing foods from grocery stores and restaurants that support your overall health and learning to prepare flavorful meals you will savor and enjoy as an act of responsible self-care. We offer supported meals and snacks, as well as experiential outings, to help you along the road to change. For people in recovery from eating disorders, food is medicine – and we will empower you every step of the way.
  4. You are not alone. At SunCloud Health, we understand that your struggles aren’t simply about food. Many people with eating disorders have suffered significant emotional or physical trauma that must be healed. We see you as a whole person and we are here to treat the full spectrum of challenges you may be facing.

If you need help healing your relationship with food, we are here for you. Call 844-202-4230 or email us here.

Young man’s death by opioid overdose shows the dangers of experimenting with pain medications

Recently I was sipping a warm beverage, enjoying my morning reading when I came across a story that touched me deeply.

It began as a simple message of thanks from a woman whose family was going through a very painful time. She wasn’t sure how they would get through the holidays without the smiling presence of her 19-year-old nephew, who had died just days before.

“I know people are curious about what happened, and mostly, they’re asking for the right reasons,” she wrote. She had decided to share all the details in hopes of helping others.

How a late-night hangout went wrong

Her nephew, whom I’ll call Chris, spent the last night of his life much like any other college student might. He and his friends stayed up late, eating pizza and playing video games in the basement.

At some point, one of the friends offered Chris a pill that was stamped with the name Percocet, a prescription opioid commonly used to relieve pain.

Chris had no history of drug use. He was a star athlete, a loving son and brother, a strong presence in his community. No one knows why he and a friend decided to take the pills that night. Maybe it was simple curiosity. Or the fact that they trusted the buddy who offered them the drug.

Both young men died almost instantly, according to first responders who rushed to the scene later. Chris’s mom found them both the next morning, and when she couldn’t wake them, she dialed 911.

An opioid that’s 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine

Medical personnel say the pills were most likely laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has caused thousands of overdoses and deaths across the country in 2018 alone.

“We are still waiting for medical reports,” Chris’s aunt wrote, “but we’ve been told the the pills may have been up to 50% fentanyl. According to the detective working on the case, that’s enough to kill 10 men.”

Just knowing that fentanyl is a powerful opioid doesn’t begin to explain why it’s so lethal.

This man-made drug is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It was originally developed to treat the worst pain suffered by cancer patients. In powder form, it looks so much like heroin that users can’t tell the difference. Drug dealers often pass fentanyl off as heroin, and due to the difference in strength, thousands of users have lost their lives.

“There can be no experimenting” with prescription drugs

Chris had big dreams. He wanted to be a father someday. He looked forward to playing football and baseball in college, hunting and fishing with his grandfather, and enjoying more time with his close friends.

“One bad choice was all it took to end this beautiful life,” his aunt wrote.

And she went on to raise a key point that really resonated with me.

Kids experiment with prescription drugs because they assume they’re safe. If they weren’t, why would the doctor prescribe them in the first place?

The idea that pills or capsules that look like they came from a family medicine cabinet could be laced with a harmful substance might never occur to young people who are just hanging out, looking for a little fun.

“You can’t see fentanyl. You can’t smell it,” Chris’s aunt pointed out. “The only way to be safe is to remember: there can be no experimenting.”

This is the wisest advice you can possibly share with your loved ones. And if you are concerned that a member of your family is playing around with opioids or prescription drugs, we are here to help you start the conversation.

Worried About Opioid Abuse? A Closer Look at the Prescription Pain Medications You or Your Family May Be Taking Right Now

If you’re concerned about someone you know who is taking opioids for pain, then you are not alone.

Throughout the Chicago area and around the country, more and more people are becoming addicted to prescription drugs that are meant to relieve discomfort. Ironically, using these drug for even a short time can lead to opioid addiction – even when we’re following doctor’s orders to the letter.

You may have heard the chilling statistics confirming that opioid overdoses have risen 100 percent from 2015 to 2016. You can’t listen to a newscast without hearing about the mounting deaths. In some communities, local morgues can’t take the bodies in fast enough.

Hospitals and substance abuse treatment centers are stocking up on Naloxone and Narcan, drugs used to treat overdose victims. But many people who overdose don’t seek medical help because they’re afraid they’ll be arrested and thrown in jail.

Understanding the opioid crisis that surrounds us

Looking at these terrible trends, we’re just as worried as you are.

I’ve written before about the classification of pain, because I want it to be clear that doctors aren’t blameless in this situation. Many have unwittingly fueled the opioid overdose statistics by prescribing opioids when other pain management solutions might have worked just as well.

But with the Centers for Disease Control reporting that more than 1,000 Americans end up in emergency rooms every single day, we need to look beyond the causes and work together to find real solutions.

Why some of us shouldn’t take opioids at all

One challenge is figuring out who will have a problem with opioids and who won’t.

It’s clear that some patients are more vulnerable to opioid addiction, yet there is no simple test to help doctors predict who will get hooked. As a result, scripts often end up in the hands of people who are very likely to become dependent.

The website reports that:

  • Nearly 30% of patients who are taking prescription pain medications will become addicted to them.
  • About 4% to 6% of those on prescription painkillers will eventually move to using illegal heroin instead.
  • Around 80% of current heroin users originally started with prescription meds.

How big pharma contributed to the opioid epidemic

In the 1990’s, a surge of new prescriptions for opioids laid the groundwork for the current crisis. Doctors adopted new diagnostic scales to evaluate the level of discomfort their patients were feeling. Many believe that the makers of prescription pain medications pushed for these changes, directly contributing to the epidemic of opioid overdoses and deaths we’re seeing now.

The CDC says the opioid crisis came in 3 overwhelming waves:

  • The first wave hit when a record number of Americans became addicted to the prescription pain medications their doctors gave them.
  • The second wave came when prescription opioid addicts switched to heroin in record numbers, causing a new surge of addiction and deaths.
  • The third wave came when fentanyl, a synthetic and often deadly form of heroin, hit the streets, further fueling the crisis.

Opioids don’t pick and choose their victims

All of us who work in health care are seeking answers, right along with you. We are reading the reports that show where resources and attention are needed most.

Opioid overdose statistics show the greatest number of deaths in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, all areas that suffer from high rates of unemployment, poverty and occupational disability.

Clearly, communities that struggle to provide a good quality of life are seeing higher levels of opioid addiction. But that doesn’t mean that people in more affluent areas are immune to the problem.

At SunCloud Health, we treat patients from all over the Chicago area. We know that wealth, influence and education are no protection from the addictive power of these dangerous drugs.

How to help someone you love who is struggling

If someone you care about is taking prescription opioids right now, don’t panic. Millions of people are able to use these medications without becoming addicted. However, you should take a closer look to ensure that things really are all right.

Look for signs that may indicate your loved one is in trouble. This helpful guide from the Mayo Clinic is a good place to start.

If you’re concerned, find a non-confrontational way to discuss what you see. Here are some very thoughtful tips from Sharon Osbourne, a wife, mother and performing artist who’s definitely been there. Sharon’s wisdom will give you many practical ways to open a conversation with your loved one.

Even if you don’t succeed in getting through to your loved one, you may need to take action. If it’s clear your loved one can’t stop using prescription meds, or s/he has moved on to illegal drug use, contact us right now. Your call or email message is 100% confidential and we’ll help you both find the help you need.

More than anything, please promise me you won’t blame yourself. You didn’t cause your loved one’s addiction. But you can provide the loving support they urgently need to begin recovering. So don’t put it off. Get in touch with us today.

Baby Elephant Beliefs, written by Shale Marks, LCSW CADC and Dr. Kimberly Dennis, MD

Baby Elephant Beliefs

There’s an old adage about baby elephants. Circus trainers would tie a rope around a baby elephant’s leg and would attach it to a stake in the ground, so that the elephant wouldn’t run away.  When the elephant grew to be an adult and weighed 12,000 pounds, the same elephant tied to the identical stake in the ground, still believed it couldn’t move. The elephant could have easily pulled the stake out of the ground and set itself free, but it was held in place by a limiting belief system. Illusion. Most of what keeps “people stuck” in the cycle of addiction or “dis-ease” are old ideas, limiting belief systems about “the self and the world” which keep illusions alive. People are afraid to let go of those beliefs which for so long served to help them survive in a world that was actually or perceived to be very dangerous.

It’s the rule rather than the exception for those with early traumas to develop and to define themselves by their wounds – this forms the basis of identity. A healthy connection to community is never formed and the reality of one’s being alone and overwhelmed turns into a perpetuated belief that no one will ever be there to help and that even if they were, accepting help would be a sign of weakness. Many people with traumatic histories and insecure early attachments also slip into the belief that real change is not possible – that somehow, they are beyond repair. Too broken.

In the face of overwhelming physical or emotional instability in the environment, the most adaptive response for small children is often the freeze response. Kids learn to dissociate, to go inside and use whatever they have access to in order to self-soothe, survive, create the illusion of security. When there is healthy, consistent attachment to caregivers, neural connections in the frontal cortex of a developing brain are formed normally, especially the parts of the brain involved in executive functioning and compassion–a necessary ingredient in healthy interpersonal functioning. When secure attachments aren’t formed at a young age for any reason, normal development of the  frontal cortex will be impaired. When kids are intermittently or chronically in a state of danger, they are prone to developing heightened activation in certain areas of the limbic system. Increased activity in the amygdala, or fear gating center, can lead not only to ongoing hypervigilance (always looking for signs of danger) but also disrupts the development of memory for example, which can have serious effects on a trauma survivor’s sense of cohesiveness and identity.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy, based on cognitive behavioral principles, is one way to break the chains of old beliefs and a brain stuck in activated trauma patterns. PE uses imaginal exposure in a supportive process and guided by a skilled clinician, to revisit painful and traumatic memories, making them speakable. So often, traumatic memories are pushed down far inside, compartmentalized away, and for good reason! The brain does a wonderful job protecting people, and it also does a great job of healing if or when people are ready to access expert help. Another tool used in PE is in vivo exposure, which involves repeated confrontation with the situations that cause activation but which are not actually dangerous in the present. Working through the activation using newly developed coping skills and healthy attachment to support allows survivors to have corrective emotion experiences. These experiences over the course of therapy lead to deep and lasting change. PE does not necessarily rewrite history, but it can significantly reduce the charge that traumatic memories activate, leading to the capacity to write a new present and live in a different way–a manner of living characterized by intention, consciousness, empowerment and choice. After PE, the patient can begin to see the memories through the eyes of a whole adult, rather than fragmented and splintered-off parts of self from childhood.

The benefit of truly integrated and holistic care is that patients are treated first and foremost as whole persons, rather than a cluster of symptoms labeled as disease treated only with others lumped into the same box. Treating substance use disorder, eating disorders, mood disorders and trauma in an integrated way with a cohesive team is good medicine in and of itself for the fragmentation that results from trauma. Fragmented care cannot heal fragmented humans.

So, how do we let go of baby elephant beliefs? By noticing our patterns, naming them,  and sharing them with our fellow travelers – in allowing others to bear witness to our vulnerability, we find our strength. It is only when we become aware of our limiting beliefs, that we can make a decision to accept ourselves, and expand beyond the old with new actions, new beliefs and a new way of life.


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