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Shauna Griffin’s life had become unmanageable. In her thirties, her hands and feet regularly went numb from alcoholic neuropathy, which made it painful for her to drive or work at her job as a product manager for a Florida vintage retail store. Later, she began experiencing seizures and jaundice; she lost roughly 50 pounds from inflammation of her pancreas. Then, Griffin developed diabetes after her pancreas (which produces insulin) went from merely inflamed to totally incapacitated. Even after moving to North Carolina to be closer to her sister, her health continued in a downward spiral over the course of a decade, and she was in and out of hospitals.

During one of Shauna’s hospitalizations, her sister came across a supportive living environment called The Fellowship Home in Raleigh. “When I left the hospital, I came straight here,” says Griffin. “I’m grateful that I chose to do it, because it changed my life completely.”

"Peer support environments help establish new relationships, habits and social networks that provide support, friendship and hope. That’s a crucial part of recovery.” 

Dr. Shantanu Agrawal

Chief Health Officer at Elevance Health

The supportive living environment, which uses a whole-health approach, included peer support. This is an essential aspect of substance use disorder recovery and treatment for many other chronic conditions. Although peer support has long been practiced by volunteer support specialists in the recovery community, it wasn’t until recently that a national certification program was introduced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to help accelerate the participation of formal peer support specialists in the workforce.

“Everyone should have the chance to be as healthy as they can be, and this means understanding that social factors have a significant influence on overall health,” said Elevance Health Chief Health Officer Dr. Shantanu Agrawal. “Peer support environments help establish new relationships, habits and social networks that provide support, friendship and hope. That’s a crucial part of recovery.”

Receiving peer support at the Fellowship Home helped Griffin regain every aspect of her health. Besides being where she connected with other women in early stages of recovery for substance abuse, it’s where she first tried acupuncture and got in touch with her spiritual side. And just as her condition had once spiraled, one thing after another, the positive effects of living among supportive peers kept compounding over time.

"Taking a holistic view of health means treating mental health and substance use disorders as equitably as broken bones and heart disease.” 

Dr. Shantanu Agrawal

Chief Health Officer at Elevance Health

Griffin’s experience tracks with the latest science. According to the National Academy of Medicine, around 80 percent of health outcomes are driven by unmet social and behavioral health needs, such as not eating well or living in a supportive environment. While receiving mental health treatment at the Home, Griffin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (BPD) and learned that depressive episodes had factored into her previous alcohol abuse. Treating BPD with medication reinforced her ability to stay sober, which then helped keep her blood sugar down—a positive-feedback loop.

“Taking a holistic view of health means treating mental health and substance use disorders as equitably as broken bones and heart disease,” Agrawal said. “This is one reason why Elevance Health and its affiliated health plans have created programs that ensure the people we serve have equitable access to quality care and evidence-based treatment options, and that we work to reduce stigma and help communities build resilience.”

The benefits of a whole-health approach continued for Griffin: Once she was able to experience the camaraderie of The Fellowship Home and regulate her BPD, she started putting together healthy meals for herself and fellow residents from recipes she found on her favorite social media channels. Her goal was to live longer than her mother, who passed away at a young age.

In fact, many chronic conditions are related to diet. Elevance Health is an industry leader in exploring innovative strategies that continue to appreciate the proven track record of traditional medicine and also include food as a foundational tool to optimize health.

"When you see a chronic disease like diabetes as a symptom, you have to see food as an important part of the solution.”

Dr. Kofi Essel

Food as Medicine Director at Elevance Health

Nutritious food is an especially important part of the solution when it comes to managing chronic conditions, like Griffin’s diabetes. Elevance Health has historically prioritized food as medicine initiatives—for decades through associate volunteer work and in the last three years with a $30 million commitment to communities through the Elevance Health Foundation. The company made an even greater commitment to this comprehensive approach last year by bringing Dr. Kofi Essel on board as food as medicine director. Essel helps the company create new strategies that combine traditional medicine with the concept of food as medicine.

“So much more goes into a person’s health than what happens at the doctor’s office,” Essel said. “Nutritious food must be part of our design for better health. Our programs and interventions must acknowledge the role food plays for everyone, including those who are managing chronic diseases. When you see a chronic disease like diabetes as a symptom, you have to see food as an important part of the solution.”

Meanwhile, Griffin is now 42 and settling into a healthy routine that she loves. “Living a healthy lifestyle has improved my life in so many different ways,” she insists. “I feel better. I feel more energized. I feel healthier, and I look forward to getting up every day.”

 

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