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Helen Chunn is a talker and she knows it. "I have ADHD" [attention deficit hyperactive disorder], she says, "and I get off in left field sometimes."

The thoughts, and the words, come in bunches.

"I was a hopeless drug addict loser. Now I'm a happy loser. I'm not a bad loser. I'm a winner. Would you like to meet my [five]-year-old?"

If she'd been told to get a job right away, "I would
have crumbled," says Helen Chunn.

Helen is feeling like a winner these days despite being a welfare mom and living in the tough Frazier neighborhood of north Memphis. Her 40 years have been difficult and chaotic, but things seem to be coming together at last. She credits the counseling she received through Tennessee's welfare system, Families First.

Poor people, and women on welfare in particular, have staggeringly high rates of mental illness. Studies have found, for example, that single mothers on welfare suffer from depression at up to seven times the rate of the general population. It's estimated that one-third of women on welfare have mental illnesses that prevent them from holding down a job. But welfare case workers often are not trained or encouraged to detect mental health problems in their clients.

Tennessee is one of a handful of states who've taken the lead in building mental health counseling into their welfare programs. Through the state's Family Services Counseling program, case workers can assign a mental health specialist to any welfare client who shows signs of mental health troubles. Helen Chunn showed plenty of signs. In fact she'd been diagnosed with various mental illnesses over the years: depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. When Helen was growing up in the 1970s, she says, "no one knew ADHD."

Helen dropped out of school in ninth grade. "Because I couldn't understand things. I wasn't doing drugs. It was my disability. I didn't know. My parents didn't know."

Helen wasn't doing drugs in 1981, but she's used a lot since. Mental illness made her mind race and her emotions soar and plunge. Her parents had abused her, and so did some of the men in her life. Drugs offered some relief. "Cocaine was the biggest," she says.

Helen went through five marriages, the last of which she's now trying to salvage.

In 2004, Helen had separated from her husband and was living with her mother. She applied for public assistance and was introduced to Becky Glisson, a contract mental health counselor for the Shelby County welfare system. Glisson "let me know there was nothing wrong with me," Helen says. "I was just me."

Helen had spun her wheels for years, her problems and mistakes repeating themselves over and over. What if she had sought help from the Tennessee Department of Human Services and simply been told that she needed to go to work?

"I would have crumbled," she says. "It's what I was trying to do. When you have a drug habit, a mental disability, when you need a home to live in, you can't just buck up and get a job. It's not that easy."

With Glisson's help, Helen finally got a clear diagnosis of her mental illness. She got drug counseling. Glisson also helped Helen change her parenting style. Helen says she grew up being "degraded" by her parents, and she tended to treat her own children that way. Besides the five-year-old, Elizabeth, Helen has two teenage daughters, a 16-year-old that lives with her and an 18-year-old who does not.

"She's a drug addict, too," Helen says of her older daughter. "She stays with her dad. She runs away a lot. She learned that from me."

Helen's counselor, Glisson, "taught me how to talk with my kids and reason with them," Helen says. "We journaled, I read my Bible - that was a big part of it. My God helps me." Helen says Glisson showed her "a little calmness, a little kindness," and she learned to treat her kids in the same way. Elizabeth, the five-year-old, used to be angry and unruly. Now the two snuggle on the couch. They're closer than ever, Helen says.

Helen is working on her high school equivalency degree. Once she gets it, the says, "I can start working myself off the [Families First] program. I can get a fulltime job. I'll have the free daycare, which makes a difference. I'll still have time for church, maybe joining some AA groups. That's my ultimate goal for this year. I want my husband back home. I want my kids to get good grades. I want to get a car. I want to get a job. I have hopes and dreams. I'm not hopeless anymore."


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