'Homeless to Harvard:' Child of Addicts Counsels Youth in Spirituality

Columbia University pioneers meditation therapies to protect against depression.

ByABC News
October 10, 2013, 2:37 AM

Oct. 10, 2013— -- Liz Murray forgave her drug-addicted parents for her fractured childhood in the Bronx, as the family lived from one welfare check to the next. She moved out at 15, figuring it was safer living on the streets than in a home where there was more cocaine and heroin than food on the kitchen table.

"People are surprised by the poverty and think that I wasn't cared for," Murray told ABCNews.com. "But that wasn't the case -- I was deeply loved."

Murray, now 33 and married with two children, is the inspiration for the television movie "Homeless to Harvard."

Living in stairwells and with friends, Murray turned to writing in her journal. When her mother died of AIDS at age 41, Murray had a spiritual epiphany and while crouching outside other families' apartments, felt "my mother's presence." Her mother asked her to promise to excel in school and her daughter decided to fulfill that pledge.

Murray became a top student at a Manhattan alternative school and wrote an essay on her personal journey that won her an Ivy League scholarship. But getting into Harvard was only half the battle. She struggled to be socially accepted and it took her nearly a decade to complete her studies.

At the same time, she lived and cared for her father, who was then sober, but also dying from AIDS.

Murray's story of resiliency was fodder for her 2010 memoir, "Breaking Night." By the time she was 19, she was motivating others on speaking tours and by 22, she was conducting workshops to guide others struggling with life's curveballs.

Now, in a new chapter in her journey, Murray is helping youth struggling with homelessness at New York's Covenant House, a nonprofit that provides shelter and support services for the city's youth population.

She is using storytelling as a tool to help abandoned youth tap into their inner spirit and to help them actualize their dreams. "Something in their family structure has fallen apart," said Murray.

"Our nature is biologically and inherently spiritual. It may take its expression through religious tradition, but every single one of us is innately born with a spiritual capacity in our genes." -- Lisa Miller, director, Spirituality & Mind/Body Institute

Her work is part of a psychology and spirituality program at Columbia University's Teachers College, a pioneering effort to use meditation therapies and mindfulness to help teens overcome trauma and successfully transition into adulthood.

"I always had a mind to go back to school," said Murray. "Then one day I picked up a New York Times article and the title was 'Merging Spirituality and Clinical Psychology at Columbia,' What? It sounded interesting."

She shot off an email to Lisa J. Miller, professor of psychology and education and head of the Spirituality & Mind/Body Institute, and was eventually accepted into the graduate program.

Miller had launched Youth Rising, a cooperative effort with Columbia's medical, social work and law schools to address the psychological, psychiatric and education needs of the city's 12,000 homeless youth, a third of whom had aged out of the foster care system.

The counseling component is funded by a $170,000 grant from the Goldman Sachs Foundation.

Miller said she has seen a "stampede" of interest in spirituality among her students.

"They've had years of practicing meditation and have a language of consciousness -- these are spiritual students."

Graduate students like Murray are trained to deliver counseling at Covenant House to focus on extreme stress, strength building and mental wellness.

Murray sees writing, alongside visualization and meditation techniques, as part of an important part of the healing process.

"I am experimenting with having them write a series of personal stories, but do it with a twist," she said. "I want them to go grab a journal and write a story about their lives. And at the very end of the semester, round them up and if a piece is particularly moving, to have a stand-up performance – get a microphone and read slam poetry."

As in her own life, Murray says, "when you take charge of your own narrative it gives you a handle on it."

The study of psychology and spirituality is now acknowledged by the American Psychological Association and Miller is co-editor-in-chief of its journal, Spirituality in Clinical Practice. She also conducts research on the benefits of visualization therapies on troubled youth.

Recent studies by Miller and others that have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Psychiatry, show that spirituality can protect a person from depression, even if they have a high risk for the disorder.

"I come to this as a scientist," said Miller. "Our nature is biologically and inherently spiritual. I call it natural spirituality. It may take its expression through religious tradition, but every single one of us is innately born with a spiritual capacity in our genes."