Cartersville resident Seenna Banks Jones sees mental health access as deterrent to substance abuse
At 42, Cartersville resident Seenna Banks Jones finds herself starting life all over again.
Yet even before she developed a substance use disorder, hers was one fraught with pain, trauma and challenges. Her father died when she was only 12; after his death, she said she was molested and raped throughout her teens. By the time she was 17, she was pregnant with her first child.
Jones said she used methamphetamine for the first time in 2017, after she and her spouse separated.
“I didn’t want to go to sleep at night, I didn’t want to think about everything that’s happened thus far in my life,” she recounted. “I didn’t know that when you started doing it, that it was going to take away your soul.”
A domestic incident led to Jones’ arrest in early 2018.
“Me and my mother had gotten into an argument, and when the police came I had been up for about three or four days,” she said. “I have been arrested before in my past, but I never went to the back. The cases were always dismissed, prior to that — this time, I had to stay for 30 days and hashed out my first charge on my record.”
It wasn’t long before she chalked up her first felony — this one a probation violation, accompanied by methamphetamine possession charges.
“I stayed in there until, like, December and then went back four months later on my birth date of this year, in April, and came out in May 24-26,” she said.
“I’m in Phase III now,” she said. “It has helped me to value myself, and to learn to value who I am as a woman again. It’s helped me to go back into things that I thought wasn’t an issue until I got into this program, the things that led up to my drug use.”
The drug court represents the first time Jones received any sort of substance abuse treatment or rehabilitation. Outside of the system-involved service, she said she wouldn’t “even know where to begin to even ask about that” in terms of mental health care resources in the community at-large.
The aspect of the drug court program that has most impacted her, Jones said, is the sense of encouragement exuded by Judge Smith.
“It’s knowing that you have a superior court judge that’s rooting for you, and wants you to make it, that believes in you, that’s trying to give you another chance to come back out here to do right,” she said. “Not sort of to erase your past, but helping you to forget your past and move forward.”
Jones said she fully believes that if she had access to mental health services in her youth, she almost certainly would not have fallen into the clutches of substance abuse as an adult.
“Back in those days, you just didn’t see a therapist, unless something was really major, major wrong with you,” she said. “I covered it by pretending to the world that I was OK, when really, deep inside, I wasn’t.”
Yet that stigma around mental health treatment, Jones said, persists to this day.
“We don’t want to talk about things that people in our family are doing to one another,” she said. “We tend to put it on the back-burner, a lot of people try to tell you ‘That everything’s in the past, you know, suck it up, buttercup,’ that type of deal … but when you’re going through mental issues and you don’t have anybody to turn to or talk to about that, it tends to make you feel as if ‘What else are you supposed to do?’”
That resulting sense of unworthiness, Jones said, is often enough to push people into drug use.
“You tend to feel like you don’t mean anything to anybody, so you start getting this attitude that I just don’t care anymore,” she said. “And when you go down that rabbit hole, it’s hard to find your way back out.”
Therein, Jones said, may lay the root cause of substance dependency itself.
“You wouldn’t risk going to jail, you wouldn’t risk losing your kids, you wouldn’t risk all these things if you thought this was a problem,” she said. “Right now, in your mind, it’s a solution, because it’s covering all of the pain, and it’s helping you cope with all of the pain.”
AN UNSPOKEN EPIDEMIC
Not only is getting illicit substances in Bartow County far from difficult, Jones said some may be shocked as to where those drugs are being sold.
“It’s very easy, and from people that you wouldn’t even expect, the neighborhoods you wouldn’t even expect,” she said. “I wasn’t going to Parkway North or The Guest House or even the Efficiency Lodge on 20. I wasn’t going there and getting high, I was getting high in neighborhoods where the [people], you might work beside them every day. I was going to neighborhoods in middle class subdivisions or upper-middle class subdivisions, that’s where I was going to get high.”
Jones also said she is disturbed by how young some of the hardcore drug users in Bartow are.
“When you see young people, like 18- or 19-years-old, who have done crack cocaine, that’s done meth, that’s done heroin, that’s bad,” she said. “A lot of people have dabbled with marijuana in their high school and college years, but I was in jail with 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds that not only don’t have their kids with them anymore, but they were IV users.”
While Jones said she had no complaints about her treatment at the Bartow County Jail — “If you gave respect, they gave respect,” she said of the jailers — she also said she believes incarceration simply does not work as a deterrent to substance use.
“When I was in there, I seen a lot of people that was in and out a lot for it,” she said. “I saw a lot of people that were just coming in there so they could rest and get off the streets for a minute, so they could eat and get their health back up — and then go right back out again.”
Nor did she say she received any form of substance abuse or mental health services while at the local jail.
“The biggest thing is you’re able to sober up,” she said. “But as far as treatment is concerned, nothing.”
Jones said she believes there is certainly a circular nature to substance abuse.
“A lot of them feel like their lives are already ruined, so they might as well keep on going,” she said. “A lot of them are just out there, in a lot of serious mental pain, and when you keep getting the door closed in your face because you’re being judged by your past, because now you have that possession charge on your record but you’ve been clean now … it goes back into that cycle again of ‘I’m not worth it, that I’m not nothing again, and why even try, why even bother?’”
And in that, Jones said she saw a silver lining through her own substance abuse battle.
“Even though I’m having to go through and fight for myself now, I thank God that I went through it, because I, too, was one of those people that used to judge,” she said. “I seen a lot of young girls, who just never had a chance, they didn’t have the love and support of a parent … I’ve seen that so much with a lot of them, and it breaks my heart.”
Indeed, since those observations at the Bartow County Jail, Jones said she has made it her mission to help as many young people — whose stories of trauma and pain are strikingly similar to her own — get back on their feet as she can.
“If I can go back and make a young lady not feel that way anymore about herself,” she said, “then that’s what I want to do.”
BUILDING A FUTURE
Jones said she sees a strong connection between drug use, employment and housing. With many higher-paying jobs off-limits to those with felony drug convictions, she said many people with substance use disorders are saddled with low-wage positions — which, in turn, keeps them stuck in areas with high concentrations of drug activity.
“You have no choice but to go back to the Parkway, go back to The Guest House, go back to these hotels, because that’s the only thing you can afford,” she said. “You’ve put yourself right back in that situation, in that environment again.”
Jones said she believes that one way to combat substance abuse in the community is to inspire more employers to hire those with drug felonies on their records.
“Why even try? Because now you’ve got a felony record, you can’t go out and get a job, you can’t support yourself, and since you can’t support yourself, you can’t get your kids back,” she said. “But if a person who has been through life, thinking they were nothing all the time, got a job at Toyo, or got a job at Shaw, or got a job at Anheuser-Busch, got a job at one of these big major companies, I think that would change their mindsets — now they’ve got some pride back into themselves, and they can start building themselves back up again.”
She said many individuals in the community would be more than happy to take a significant “pay cut” for such jobs if it means having a shot at a sustainable income.
“When somebody finally gives them a chance and opens the door, I’ve seen a lot of people go ‘I don’t want to mess this up, I’m finally getting another chance at life,’” she said.
She also said addressing the social stigma of substance use disorder — especially stereotypical depictions of those with such disorders — could benefit the local community.
“That’s the only thing that you see in the media, that if somebody’s addicted, they’re getting ready to steal from us, getting ready to rob us,” she said. “And that’s continuing to get the door closed in our face … people think you’re the scum of the earth because you were addicted to drugs, instead of realizing this young lady, her daddy might’ve molested her as a child, or she might’ve got raped walking down the street and wasn’t able to tell anybody.”
She also said she’d like to see more people who have overcome substance abuse serve as “mentors” in Bartow.
“If more recovered addicts would come back and give back and help the ones that’s going through it right now, and show them ‘Hey, I did it, you can do it, let me show you my secret,’ I think that would help a lot, too.”
Approaching middle age, Jones acknowledges that the second act of her life remains largely unwritten. Stating that she’s been clean for about seven months now, she said she has at least two very important motivators to continue striving for sobriety in her own life.
“My children and my grandchildren,” she said. “I had to talk to my granddaughter from jail, and she was like ‘Nana, I’ve been praying for you every night,’ and she’s only five years old.”
Community Torn is a five-week series exploring the many ways substance abuse impacts Bartow, with an emphasis on the voices of those most impacted by the community's drug crisis. Using a multidisciplinary approach encompassing public policy specialists, health care providers, law enforcement officials and judicial system representatives, the series seeks to demonstrate the true toll of substance dependency throughout the county.