GRIT: Holyoke’s Residential Recovery Program For LGBTQs

GRITLeft to Right: Bonnie O’Donnell, MHA’s GRIT (Yale Street), Program Director; Kim Fernald, MHA’s GRIT (Yale Street), Clinical Director.; Photo: GRIT

GRIT Holyoke welcomes adults exclusively from the Rainbow Community in a homelike environment recovery program

By: Audrey Cole/TRT Reporter—

HOLYOKE, Mass.—A residential rehabilitation and recovery program specifically designed for the LGBTQ+ community is opening in Holyoke, Mass. according to a recent release by the organization.

GRIT, the program’s intentional name, is the Mental Health Association’s (MHA) 24/7 residential program for adults. In Holyoke, GRIT includes a 16-bed program for adults 18+ who have both a substance use disorder and a moderate-to-severe mental health diagnosis, and who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and/or gender non-binary (LGBTQ).

The homelike environment of GRIT, located in a serene, suburban neighborhood with spacious bedrooms and bathrooms, was built with purpose, as was the program’s name too.

“It was actually a group effort. We wanted something synonymous with what it takes to move ahead in recovery. It takes perseverance, fortitude, endurance… it takes grit,” explained Kimberley Lee, Vice President of Resource Development & Branding, MHA, Inc. to The Rainbow Times via an e-interview. “Program folks found that this word lent itself nicely to an acronym that speaks to the program’s goals: “Grow. Reimagine. Inspire. Transform.”

Like other models, GRIT Holyoke will “provide a safe, home-like environment where residents benefit from supportive, structured, and developmentally appropriate teaching and care.”

“In order for us to accommodate a program to serve 16 adults, we needed a home that was large and spacious enough. The Yale Street residence in Holyoke was a good fit, it was available for purchase, and it was a good candidate architecturally for a major interior renovation to prepare for our residents,” said Lee. “The exterior of the home was preserved so it continues to look like any of the historic homes in the neighborhood. MHA currently has two other GRIT programs, one in Springfield serving adult men 18 and older, and another in Springfield focusing on young adult males 18 to 26.”

The institution’s providers will not just be allies, but also community members.

“Our organization is committed to ensuring an environment that is culturally representative of those we serve,” said Lee. “Not only is there staff from the LGBTQ+ community, but also the staff who have lived experience with addiction and/or a mental health diagnosis and are themselves in long-term recovery.”

And in establishing part of that inclusion, licensed Clinical Social Worker, Sherene Smith, a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, was hired by GRIT.

“I am passionate about the people this program was created to help,” Smith said. “We are creating a peaceful recovery environment for LGBTQ+ adults, supporting people who may be trying to work on multiple parts of themselves, from questions of identity to how that intersects with substance use, mental and emotional wellness, relationships and more.

“Queerness is a part of my identity and informs the clinical work I do, so it was exciting to discover a program where serving my community is the exclusive focus. I also have personal experience with mental health treatment, which is an additional reason why I am so motivated to do this work. Understanding the relationship between mental health, substance use, and the experience of being a sexual minority requires therapists who are well informed and also affirming. This distinction is a crucial difference for the population we serve.”

Persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, and/or pansexual often face discrimination, prejudice, denial of civil and human rights, personal harassment, and family rejection, Smith emphasized. If they also live with a mental health condition, they may find themselves fighting a double stigma. In addition, if they struggle with substance use, their barriers to recovery may feel insurmountable.

The stress of living as a minority can manifest through increased anxiety and mental health issues, Smith explained.

“People in this community are almost three times more likely to experience a mental health issue, substance use is 20-30% higher in LGBTQ populations and trans/non-binary folks experience suicidal thoughts at higher rates,” she added. “A lot of this has to do with the stress in society that is put on LGBTQ+ folks and the ways homophobia and transphobia negatively impact people’s health.”

Research results reported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness demonstrate the degree to which mental health and substance use problems impact the LGBTQ+ community, too often with fatal consequences:

  • LGBTQ+ people are at a substantially higher risk than the general population for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
  • High school students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers.
  • Among transgender adults, 48% report that they have considered suicide in the past 12 months, compared to 4% of the overall U.S. population.

“Individuals who come to GRIT Holyoke for care may have experienced trauma that is specific to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” Smith explained. “Clinicians and staff working here are sensitive to those needs and can work with people holding different aspects of their experience. This approach separates GRIT Holyoke from other programs. By confronting the interrelated challenges of addiction and mental health struggles in a safe, LGBTQ+-affirming environment among peers and allies, the persons served here will have better opportunities to achieve positive outcomes, including long-term recovery and a stable life within a supportive community.”

Although GRIT has a nurse on staff, it is not a medical institution, said Lee.

“GRIT is a residential program, not a medical facility,” Lee explained. “State regulations require that we have a part-time nurse on staff to serve in a health education and physical wellness support role.”

According to the organization’s press release: “The general approach at GRIT Holyoke is for people to live and learn as residents for about nine months before returning to the community, although this timeline is flexible to reflect individual needs. Folks are welcomed without judgment to a home-like environment. Each resident has their own bedroom. The kitchen is a common area where meals are prepared and shared. Household chores are shared as well. The property overlooks the Connecticut River, providing residents the opportunity to sit quietly and be contemplative.”

The first residents are expected to arrive at GRIT Holyoke on September 15, 2020, according to Lee.

GRIT Holyoke is one of 26 new Residential-based Rehabilitation Service programs across the state, funded and licensed by the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, including three programs awarded to MHA.

To be admitted to the program, applicants should have a referral from another source.

“Referrals can come from any source, including the individual themselves, as well as health care professionals, social services professionals, family members, and others,” said Bonnie O’Donnell, Program Director, GRIT Yale St. “Individuals who are residents of GRIT must have a co-occurring mental health and substance use diagnosis. For GRIT, Holyoke residents are additionally members of the larger LGBTQ+ community.”

For a list of specific requirements, O’Donnell encourages “folks to call 844-MHA-WELL,” or e-mail them at For a Q&A that explains more about GRIT Holyoke, visit

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