Mary Monnat Takes the Road Less Traveled

From The Lund Report, April 24, 2014

Mary Monnat, president and CEO of LifeWorks NW, isn’t known as a quitter.

Portland Commissioner Nick Fish with Mary Monnat

Portland Commissioner Nick Fish with Mary Monnat

In her 30-plus years at LifeWorks NW, the mental health and addiction prevention and treatment organization has grown from 50 staff members treating a few thousand clients per year to a tri-county operation with over 600 employees serving 17,000 individuals annually.

Monnat’s career as a passionate advocate for mentally ill and addicted individuals started at a personal crossroads.

After graduating from Notre Dame, she applied and was accepted to three law schools. A dream come true?

“I didn’t want to go,” said Monnat, smiling broadly in her sunlit Beaverton office, set among cabin-like buildings shrouded by trees.

She asked for and was granted deferments from all three schools and “took a year off to live simply and do community work with Holy Cross Associates.”

After walking away from law school, Monnat came to Portland, “out to save the world,” she said, and began working at DePaul Treatment Centers, a nonprofit provider of chemical dependency services.

“The experience saved me,” said Monnat. “I was taken by the recovery process and how it could transform people’s lives.”

Personal experience shaped Monnat’s revelation.

“I came from a family with serious addiction and depression problems – a classically addicted family,” she said.

Though many young people would try to forget such a difficult past, “I wanted to broaden my understanding of mental health,” she said. “I had an ‘Aha’ moment that addiction runs in families, but so does recovery.”

Monnat got to know Jeanne Rivers of Central City Concern, who drove a Hooper Detox van, retrieving publicly intoxicated people to spend the night in Hooper’s care rather than in jail.

At the time, DePaul Treatment Center and other programs accepted only male patients. But Monnat and Rivers witnessed mentally ill and addicted women and their children living on the streets.

“We knew where the women were and started a track for skid-row women,” said Monnat.

She joined LifeWorks in 1983 as a chemical dependency and mental health specialist, moved through various management positions and became president and CEO in 1998.

The organization, which served only Washington County in the early ‘80s, grew to include Clackamas and Multnomah counties and now has dozens of offices and programs throughout Portland metro. “We are in 20 medical clinics now,” said Monnat. “Our goal is to help support primary care” and provide a continuum of support.

Who does LifeWorks serve?

“It’s across the lifespan,” said Monnat. “From prebirth treatment of mothers for mental health and addiction, to adults with dementia.”

Its prevention services support healthy parenting, school success, juvenile crime prevention, life skills development and substance abuse prevention.

Its mental health programs offer counseling for anxiety, depression, past trauma, family relationship issues, challenges during adolescence, parenting difficulties and Alzheimer’s disease.

Addiction counseling encompasses alcohol abuse, methamphetamine and other drug use, problem gambling, and dependence on prescription or over-the-counter medications.

“We serve those on Oregon Health Plan and the uninsured,” said Monnat – people who lack the resources to get the treatment they need.

Referrals come from a variety of sources.

“It might be a child welfare worker, a probation and parole officer, a doctor’s office, family members or even the person in need,” said Monnat.

“We have a centralized intake number (503-645-9010). Just call us and we will help.”

Women and children are the focus of LifeWorks’ Project Network, a nationally recognized program that works with mentally ill and addicted women toward a goal of becoming clean and sober, reuniting with their children, and transitioning to permanent, supported housing.

In just a few months, Monnat will realize one of her organization’s long-sought goals. The Center for Hope and Recovery will open in late July, the result of a partnership between Lifeworks NW and Home Forward (formerly the Housing Authority of Portland).

The $8.5 million facility and neighboring apartments in northeast Portland will provide treatment and substance-free family housing, predominantly for African-American women and children.

“It will have 45 beds for pregnant, addicted women and five homes for step-down services, in a supportive neighborhood,” said Monnat.

Thinking about the changes in attitudes, funding and treatment of mental health and addiction that she’s witnessed in the last 30 years, Monnat says, “I have more hope now than I ever have.”