Whitman Walker Clinic Doctor Talks Mental Health and Homelessness

Dr. Colleen Lane is the medical site director at the Whitman-Walker Health’s Max Robinson site in Southeast D.C. She has seen many patients in her clinical work cycle between housing security and homelessness, with severe impacts on their physical and mental health.   

“I have a passion for serving underserved populations, especially immigrants and undocumented people, women, adolescents, and patients living with chronic medical diseases,” Lane’s health center staff profile reads. The Georgetowner spoke with Lane to find out more about the medical and mental health factors associated with homelessness in the District. 

Located just off the Anacostia Metro station, Whitman-Walker’s Max Robinson clinic is a convenient place for those who may have trouble making it to a doctor’s office. Eighty percent of the time, Lane sees patients and the other 20 percent of the time, assists with policies and programs targeting patients in Southeast. “The medical system can be hard to navigate,” Lane said. “If you don’t have an ID or insurance, it can be even more intimidating walking in a front door asking for help.”  

That fear of getting healthcare is why the Whitman Walker Health’s Max Robinson Center tries to be a one-stop shop to help people sign up for insurance and legal services. “Whitman-Walker has the oldest medical legal partnership in the entire country,” Lane said. “Lawyers are part of our medical team to deal with the unique social stressors of being involved in the justice system, or having a landlord evict you — it’s important to have someone on the team with legal specialties.”  

Whitman-Walker’s medical team is multi-disciplinary, with doctors, nurse practitioners and behavioral health specialists like psychiatrists and therapists. Care navigators are also on hand to help make the intricacies and challenges of Whitman-Walker easier.  

“It is very common to see homelessness co-occurring with mental health disorders,” Lane said. “It can be very challenging, not only living with a mental health disorder but a lot of people experiencing homelessness also have a significant trauma history.” The chance of a potential traumatic background is why every clinician on site is trained in trauma care to de-escalate someone who might be upset from a challenging experience. Lane said everyone at the Max Robinson facility has a goal to be a “soft place for people to land.”  

In addition to being site director at the Max Robinson Center, Lane is also director of addiction medicine, a specialty Whitman-Walker has integrated into its primary care services over the last five years. “Often, homelessness and mental health disorders go hand-in-hand and substance abuse is a way for people to treat themselves,” Lane said. “If you can’t get to a doctor’s office, you may be able to get a hold of a substance that makes it more tolerable to be in the situation you’re in.”  

During the pandemic, Lane has seen an explosion of substance abuse across the board. “There were a couple of studies done involving alcohol use, and it is skyrocketing across the country and Europe too.” People trying to deal with stressors during the pandemic have been using substances to cope. Lane has also seen a lot more opioid overdoses and positive alcohol use screenings.  

It is important to remember that not all models work for everyone. “Especially for someone struggling with mental illness and trauma, it can be hard to open up in a room full of strangers,” Lane said. “I had a gentleman who used to support himself by selling heroin and he couldn’t sit in a room where he knew he contributed to [the support group’s] addictions.”  

The pandemic has made donations crucial for the health center. You can give by visiting Whitman-walker.org/give. Lane also mentioned the 35th Annual Walk to End HIV on October 23. More on that event can be found at walktoendHIV.org.   






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