The challenge: Hurdles

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LEGIONS OF CHILDREN come of age in atmospheres of abuse or neglect, either at home or in toxic environments on the streets, having little chance for normal development in their youth. Others suffer from undiagnosed mental illness, ranging from highly treatable depression to more serious schizophrenia or bipolar disorders. Addictions, neglect, educational gaps and missing social skills combine to put kids into deep holes, and digging out can take both determination and significant help.

Youth struggles


This kid who wanted a chemistry set was sucked into a gang by the time he was 13. He turned it around in prison.
WILL FIELDS WAS ONCE a scrawny 10-year old kid who wanted a chemistry set for his birthday. But on the streets of LA — with no father in his life nor any male role models around — he got sucked into the only stable structure he could see. By 12, he was running with his neighborhood gang. They spent most of their time fighting rival gangs. Never really involved in drugs, he was arrested at 17 for attempted murder, serving several years. At first, he continued his gang mentality, but he quickly recognized the abusurdity and set out to build skills and attitudes for a new life. Learn about Will’s recovery here.



Tina beat her addiction by learning to look for joy each day rather than power through pain.

“EVERY MORNING I get up and tell the Universe, ‘Bring on the pain! Is this all you got? I’ve been doing this my whole life. I can handle more than this.’” “Really, Tina?” her friend answered. “Of everything in the entire Universe you could ask for, you ask for pain?”

Click here to learn about how Tina recovered from addiction and found joy.

THE GREATEST ADDICTION myth is that it can be beaten through raw personal determination. In fact, addiction is a physiological distortion of brain chemistry that can overwhelm the circuits of choice and consequence. This especially true when addiction begins in the teen years. Treating addiction requires enormous effort from the patient: nothing can be done without personal commitment. But determination alone will very often not be enough.

WHETHER THE ADDICTION was driven by originally by mental illness, abuse or neglect, or simply by poor judgment at a vulnerable time, it can quickly become a form of mental illness in its own right. This is especially true when the addict comes from a family and social setting without the resources needed to fight out of the hole.

Hank explains the brain chemistry of addiction (11:49)

Mental health


Depression and anxiety were her path to addiction.
HHER OLDER SISTER had an eating disorder, but AriAnn wasn’t doing so great herself. She had anxiety disorder and depression, needing to talk but unable to make herself heard. On her own path to addiction, her sister was consuming the parental bandwidth, and her troubles went unnoticed. She began cutting herself — a quiet cry for help and a way to feel something. From there, she was sucked into drug abuse and multiple arrests. After repeated failures, she had a spiritual epiphany while in jail one night, and found in it the strength to completely heal.

Click here to learn about AriAnn’s emotional struggles and how she eventually found peace.

FROM HIGHLY treatable anxiety or depression to more serious schizophrenia, America’s jails and prisons are awash with people who need medical help for mental conditions. Since the early 1970s, when state governments dropped the ball, the streets and the corrections system have been the front lines of mental health “treatment.”


THIS TRAGEDY plays out on two levels. First, many who could end up suffering from a “dual diagnosis,” where addiction and depression or anxiety feed on each other. Both addiction and mental challenges could often be overcome with a threefold approach of prescribed medicine, cognitive behavioral training and an improved social environment. At the other extreme, many people with intractable problems are left in facilities ill-equipped to handle them. It’s a lose/lose arrangement.

Skills, habits & logistics

CHALLENGES BOTH BIG and small can blow craters in the road back from jail or prison. These include people skills, hygiene and dress, time management and reliability, and navigating a complex world to get a license, buy a car, budget for bills. What use is drug treatment if you can’t find an apartment? Or job training if you can’t balance a checking account? What do you do if reuniting with your family and friends means reentering a toxic environment? These challenges often stem from compromised youth, with vital thought patterns and skills left untaught at key junctures.

ADDICTIONS AND OTHER BAD habits can be tackled in treatment for those who really want to change. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help people overcome the cycle of emotions, feelings and behaviors by recognizing triggers and replacing negative stimuli at key moment. Over time, CBT can actually physically change a brain.

SOME OF THE MOST promising prisoner reentry programs cover the whole gamut of dangers holistically, providing a safe place to live, job training, medical care and life coaching. The best also provide a close-knit community of others who have already made it or are ready to change. See more about these bridge building programs here.