Hillsides Community Blog

Domestic Violence Awareness Month – Why it’s Important to Speak Up

sad crying woman suffering from domestic violence

By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO

Domestic violence is an issue that is difficult to address because of the stigma and shame associated with it. However, as painful and disturbing as it is, this issue is a crucial one for us to talk about. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). Domestic violence often occurs alongside child abuse and neglect, further compounding the trauma. (Thirty – 60 percent of children from homes where domestic abuse is present are also victims of abuse themselves, according to the Prevent Child Abuse America.®) In addition, children who witness domestic violence are at risk for a host of issues such as anxiety, depression, and aggression.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. For all too many of our clients, domestic violence is a painful reality. One of the programs Hillsides offers helps adults who have been overwhelmed address whatever the presenting issue is while also getting back into the workforce. An employee working in this program shared with me the case of a woman, a victim of domestic violence, who sought out our assistance. Not only had she fled out of state to avoid an abusive relationship, but one of her two children was being treated for a serious illness. Relocated to California, she found herself exhausting what money she had, homeless, living out of her car with her two children, desperate and overwhelmed. Because of the skillful team of therapists and case workers in this program, we were able to help this client address her depression, get into a shelter and eventually into permanent housing, receive medical treatment for her son, go back to school, and secure a job.

It has been a long and difficult road for this woman and her children. There were times when she second-guessed the strategy and considered returning to the relationship she abandoned because at least it was a familiar refuge. With the support and guidance of our staff, she was encouraged to persevere.  She now benefits from her courageous efforts, feeling confident of her capacity to confront hardship and improve her life. For those who have survived domestic violence, the greatest achievement is the ability to move on confidently to a better life.

During this month, when we draw attention to the issue of domestic violence, let us create an environment where those affected by violence can feel safe to reveal their painful stories, benefit from our support, and know our commitment to tangibly improve their lives. For more information on domestic violence, please visit The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  To report domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit https://www.thehotline.org/. For advice on what to do if you suspect someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, please take a look at a recent Hillsides blog post, “Seven Expert Tips on How to Help a Friend or Family Experiencing Domestic Violence.”



Laughter: Great for the Abs and the Mind

Canva - Child, Laughter, Happy, Playground

By Desiree Rodrigues

Who can recall the scene from the movie “Legally Blonde,” where Elle is doing her best to explain that people who exercise are happy because of the release of endorphins? Well, before everyone tries to add an extra hour of cardio to their day, did you know that laughing also releases endorphins?  A study by Robin Dunbar, a professor emeritus of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, suggests that the muscles used while laughing also trigger the release of these “happy hormones.”

Sharing a humorous moment with someone is also a natural form of therapy. Making someone laugh can change their mood in a second. Scientifically, we know that this reaction might be due to endorphins, but the effect goes beyond the science books.

Speaking from experience, I have had times when I needed cheering up. When someone makes me laugh, I see things in a different light. My thoughts are clearer and I have a more optimistic outlook on the situation. My grandmother would always say, “La risa es el major remedio,” which means, laughter is the best medicine. I grew up with that mentality, so in my house we tell jokes and we laugh even when faced with a tough situation.

But how does laughter become part of a therapeutic session without seeming insensitive? Can laughter be therapeutic to everyone?

I spoke with Lourdes Perez, a Hillsides CalWORKs therapist (CalWORKs is an employment-focused program that receives referrals from the California Department of Social Services), and asked her if she has incorporated laughter in her sessions with clients. She stated that she had, because laughing for even a minute helps relieve stress, and afterwards clients can approach their situation with a different mindset. She introduces laughter as a form of self-care, always making sure to explain that laughing at something is not a way of making light of a situation. She encourages her clients to think of the last time they laughed out loud at something, and she asks them to talk about how they felt afterwards.

Rosa Chavez, a Hillsides mental health rehab specialist for outpatient and school-based programs in Baldwin Park, also uses laughter in her therapy sessions with children and parents. “When working with little ones, I try to incorporate laughter as much as possible because it is important for children to feel at ease and have fun during sessions,” she said.  She added that while working with parents in Positive Parenting sessions, “I incorporate humor to make them feel relaxed, since talking about parenting and their challenges can be difficult.”

Need more proof of the healing power of humor?  Peter McGraw, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the book, “The Humor Code,” created a humor research lab where he and his staff study the effects of humor on health and psychological well-being. Some of the results prove that even a fake smile or laugh can release endorphins, resulting in a decrease in the amount of cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” produced by the body. He has a slightly different approach about incorporating humor therapeutically because he believes people need to be taught how to be happy. You can read more about. McGraw’s study and book by visiting his website, humorcode.com.

In an online article posted by the Social Anxiety Institute, “He Who Laugh Most is Most Likely to Last,” one statement stood out in the first paragraph:  “By adding laughter to our daily lives, our therapy becomes more efficient and effective.”  The challenge is to smile and laugh out loud as often as you can, even when you feel blue.  Laughter is contagious — your giggle and smile can help brighten someone’s mood.

You have a chance to learn some new jokes at the upcoming fundraiser for the children of Hillsides at the Ice House Comedy Club in Pasadena on October 14. Get your tickets now by calling 626-577-1894 or visiting icehousecomedy.com  and get ready to LOL!

Desiree Rodrigues, who has worked at Hillsides for eight years, is the program coordinator for the CalWORKs program at Hillsides. She is currently working on her degree in literature at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, and is looking forward to beginning California State University, Long Beach next fall.


Why the warning signs of suicide are important

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By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO

Recently I learned that one of our female residents reported her intent to harm herself. As they discussed her feelings and what was causing her to feel so desperate, staff agreed that she required a psychiatric hospitalization to assure a safer environment and a greater level of care, at least temporarily. When I learned this, my reaction was relief that we were able to address this issue before the girl was able to harm herself. However, it does not resolve the larger issue that we have seen increased suicidal ideation not only with residents but also day students at the Hillsides Education Center. At any given time in the last academic year, an average of two students a week were absent for psychiatric hospitalization.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24. The increase in suicides is alarming, and warrants consideration as an epidemic. Children living in foster care and those identifying as LGBTQ are at a higher risk than the general population. Many children in our care fall into these two categories, so for us, special vigilance is required to be attentive to any indicators of risk for suicide. Changes in mood, unusual behavior, increased isolation, depression, and self-harming behavior are all things that would raise our concern and require our attention.

September is Suicide Prevention Month. Given the significant increase of incidents, it is important for all of us to become familiar with the warning signs. Some believe that asking about suicide will only increase the possibility that someone will harm himself or herself. However, the opposite is true. Addressing the possibility that someone might be depressed enough to harm themselves is often the conversation that can make the difference and avoid a tragedy. A recent CBS report of how a couple was blindsided when their 17-year-old daughter jumped off a highway overpass to her death points to the challenge of recognizing the warning signs. A high-achieving, socially active and well-liked child was nevertheless consumed with self-doubts and loathing, unable to express her feelings except in a journal that recorded her anguish. Because suicidal thoughts can be so difficult to detect, it is important to approach our children with a heightened sensitivity.

At Hillsides we address the issue of suicide as an opportunity to assure the children and youth in our care that we are committed to keeping them safe and will provide what they need to deal with anything they are experiencing. Helping them trust adults is perhaps the greatest obstacle given the traumas they have experienced. Being non-judgmental, affirming, and consistently present goes a long way in overcoming the lack of trust. Communicating in word and action that they are valued and important is often what children need to know in order to seek help.

The stigma associated with mental illness is significant. The tendency to underestimate the risk of suicide is strong. The stressors affecting our children and adolescents are easily unrecognized. Without becoming unnecessarily protective, we should adopt a vigilant posture in increasing our awareness of the risk of suicide and take advantage of the opportunities we have to assure our children of our love and care.

For more information about suicide prevention, please visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Five Tips to Make your Relationships RICHer

Men talking

By Alison Bell

We all want to connect with the people in our lives — our co-workers, family, friends, and even strangers we interact with.  One secret to better relationships lies in a program called *Risking Connection®, which teaches a mindset and skills for working with survivors of traumatic experiences.  Risking Connection® helps people recover from trauma through RICH@ relationships, those that are characterized by Respect, Information Sharing, Connection, and Hope.

Hillsides is currently leading its employees through Risking Connection® training, with an emphasis on RICH®.  While the training is directed at helping our clients recover from trauma, the principles of RICH® can be applied to our everyday life for fuller, happier relationships.

Here, Hillsides director of training, Samira Vishria, offers five tips to make all of our relationships RICHer:

RICH Tip # 1:  Slow down.   Time has become a precious resource for most of us.  In our rush to get everything done, we may make snap judgments or not give others our complete attention.  For example, you may get annoyed when a co-worker asks you to do something in a demanding or agitated tone. However, instead of writing off the encounter as an irritant, Vishria suggests responding with, “I am happy to help, but first I have to ask, is everything okay?”

This does two things.  First, it lets the other person know you care enough to ask about their well-being.  Second, it helps you let go of any assumptions fueling your exasperation. You may discover, for example, that your co-worker got some bad news that morning, which is influencing how they are treating you.  With this simple question, you gain sympathy for them, and they gain a listening ear.  What could have been a dark moment in both of your day can turn into a bright spot of connection.

RICH Tip # 2: Replace “need” with “can.”   When making a request of someone, we often use the word “need.”  For example, you may say to your partner, “We need to get going.”  “Need,” however, conveys a sense of urgency and position of power that can come off as harsh. As an alternative, Vishria suggests using “can,” as in, “Can we get going so we’re not late for the dinner?”  The change is subtle, but softens your request in a way that doesn’t make the other person feel defensive or under the gun.  The result:   better overall communication, and as a bonus, a greater chance you will get the desired results.

RICH Tip # 3:  Exchange more information.  Throughout life, we are often told “no.”  “No, you can’t park here.”  “No, you can’t enroll your child in this program.”  “No, your insurance doesn’t cover that procedure.”  It’s easy to get frustrated and to blame the bearer of bad news.  The result?  Total communication shut down. What can help is staying calm and probing deeper into the reasoning behind the decision.  (The trick is you have to really listen, not just ask why to blow off steam.) Not only does this make the interaction more bearable, often in hearing the rationale for the rule, you will find some pieces of information that are helpful to you.

Conversely, when you’re having a tough talk with someone, in your desire to get the information out quickly, you may not be as thorough as you could be.  Yet, everyone likes to know as much as possible so they can make an informed decision.  “Exchanging more information helps both parties see the other side and shows a mutual respect,” says Vishria.

 Rich Tip 4:  Create small bridges of connection

It’s easy to feel like others aren’t making an effort toward us, but it can be beneficial to ask yourself, What effort am I making?  “Small gestures, such as making eye contact and saying hello to people you see every day makes a big difference in feeling connected,” says Vishria.  Often, too, we pick up on the cues around us.  Maybe your office environment isn’t that friendly, or no one says hi to the clerk at your local market.  “However, you can be the one to change the culture,” says Vishria.  “Don’t wait for someone else to do it – you do it first!”

Rich Tip 5: Put the “h” word into more conversations

“Hope” is a powerful word to drop into conversations.  For example, if you are having a disagreement with someone, try to end the conversation with, “I hope we can discuss this later and find some common ground.”  Checking in with the person after an unpleasant talk is also a way of staying hopeful even if you don’t use the actual word.  “It might be as simple as saying, “I felt really bad after the conversation.  Are we okay?”  That opens up the chance for more conversation and an opportunity to see more eye to eye.

Life is complicated and filled with the potential for both meaningful and dissatisfying encounters with those around us. By following the RICH® model, we can all make our lives – and everyone else’s –a little better.

*Risking Connection is a registered trademark of the Sidran Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people understand, recover from and treat traumatic stress, dissociative disorders, and co-occurring issues, such as additions, self-injury, and suicidality.


A Thank You to Advocate Extraordinaire, Carroll Schroeder

 By Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides President and CEO


Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services

The child welfare field is relatively free of any significant political bias, although clearly it is in favor of maintaining entitlements for children.  The well-being of children, youth, and families who are vulnerable is a concern for elected officials, regardless of their political party association. That being said, politicians like to know the opinion of their constituents and are committed to representing the best interests of those they serve. However, policy issues involving foster care are complex. Issues often are not fully vetted and can easily be influenced by competing philosophical agendas. In this environment, it is imperative to have advocates who can cut through bureaucracies and succinctly represent the concerns of those directly involved in delivering services to vulnerable children and families.

As the executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, Carroll Schroeder has been an extraordinarily effective advocate for children, youth, and families.  Hillsides has been an active member of the Alliance from the Alliance’s establishment in 2000. During my tenure, not only here but in Northern California, I have had the privilege of knowing Carroll as a colleague, friend, and advocate for the children of California. After 17 years in this leadership position, Carroll is retiring at the end of the year. I’m sure the Alliance will find a very capable candidate to fill the vacancy.  However, I’m confident that no one will surpass Carroll as a leader in this field or more effectively speak to the critical issues facing children, youth, and families.

During Carroll’s tenure as the executive director, the Alliance has addressed major issues that directly affect the children and families we serve. Whether it be assuring that mental health services are available to all children in the foster care system or guaranteeing adequate funding for residential services or reform efforts to improve care, Carroll has been at the forefront of initiatives to create positive change.

Joe and Stacey in bowties

Left to right:  Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides president and chief executive officer, and Stacey Roth, Hillsides executive  vice president & chief operations officer.  Carroll Schroeder is known for wearing a bow tie, so at the most recent California Alliance of Child and Family Services conference, Joe and Stacey honored Carroll by donning bow ties.

I meet with Hillsides’ staff regularly to hear their concerns about how to serve best the children and youth in our care. Especially as we implement significant reforms in the foster care system, there is always a concern that the strategies we employ need further development. The insights of staff and the experience of our clients are important to take into account when we interact with policymakers who are hoping to influence best practices in the field of child welfare.

Carroll is always interested in those insights, and helpful at directing who might best address them. He was able to marshal the resources of the Alliance to create effective change focused on the well-being of those we serve. He did this not only with a smile but with the ability to bring a smile and a laugh to those with whom he collaborated. His effectiveness has meant that the children we serve enjoy a greater level of care driven by a commitment to provide them and their families what they need most.

It is not often that this blog highlights the efforts of one person, but it is important to recognize such a great advocate because all of us, in our own way, are called to be advocates. The children, youth, and families we serve have a fragile voice, weakened by the trauma they have experienced. As Carroll has done throughout his career, we must lend our voice to theirs, and together address their needs.


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