Doing Recovery

John McManamy Health Guide
  • META Services, based in Phoenix, had been a successful behavioral health organization. For 10 years, they had been in the business of stabilizing and maintaining patients. But something was missing.

    In 1999, its CEO Eugene Johnson and his colleagues attended a workshop where they heard patients talk about how discouraging it was to be continually written off and disenfranchised and disrespected by the people who were supposed to be helping them.

    Suddenly, a light went off in Eugene Johnson’s head, what he calls a “crisis of conscience.” He realized META was part of what these patients were complaining about. At once, he incorporated the word, “recovery,” into the organization's mission statement, and set about dragging his employees kicking and screaming into a new era of transformation.
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    His first edict was a ban on seclusion and restraints, a tall order as 40 percent of the 1,200 patients its two centers saw every month were brought in involuntarily. After 18 months, zero restraint became a reality.

    In the meantime, META began training patients as paid peer supporters, people employed by META to assist other patients in their recovery. To accomplish the task, META hired Lori Ashcraft PhD. Its first “graduation class” included 15 patients. Today, more than half of META’s 350 employees are graduates of the training program.

    These graduates’ expertise is their lived experience. A side benefit of peers stepping into paid positions was their own recovery was strengthened. As their numbers increased, the culture of the organization experienced a radical shift away from the old way of doing things.

    Among some of META’s guiding principles:
    • Learn to use language that promotes hope. Avoid language that relates to sickness.
    • Raise expectations of what people are capable of accomplishing.
    • Stay focused on strengths, no matter what.
    • Build everyone’s hope, because hope is the energy that moves transformation forward.
    • Find ways to say yes.
    META can crunch all kinds of numbers to prove its recovery principles work. One of them is that graduates require using crisis services on average of 1.6 times per year, as opposed to 16 times a year prior to training. But Dr Ashcraft advises checking out the scene at ground level, such as places where the staff have casual conversations. “Are they talking disparagingly about the people using services?” she asks. “Is there a lot of gossip being passed around?”

    And what about the physical environment? “Are there lots of Plexiglass partitions between staff and people, or is the space open and conducive to engagement and conversation?”

    And, finally, the bathroom test: “Are there separate bathrooms for staff and people being served?”

    My housemate Paul is a mental health advocate. In February, he attended a three-day workshop held in Phoenix by META. He came back wildly enthusiastic. Everyone is talking about recovery, he told me. These people are actually doing it. Since then, he has been back to Phoenix several times, and has been going up and down the state of California promoting META, trying to get people to listen. It is through Paul that I met Dr Ashcraft, first at one conference in California, then another.

  • Unfortunately, the California mental health system is locked into the old ways. Change takes time. Administrators and clinicians are resistant to new ideas. In particular, they do not tolerate patients in the system in any capacity other than token roles. Ironically, the mental health system is sitting on billions earmarked for transition that it does not know how to spend.
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    Someday, the equivalent of a Bill Gates will come along and steal META’s ideas. Then we will see recovery everywhere.

    Naturally, Paul has been urging me to go to Phoenix, but my conference/speaking season started up in March and did not let up till the beginning of November. I am writing a series of recovery articles here at BipolarConnect. I was a speaker at at least two conferences that had the term, recovery, in their title theme.

    But these people are actually doing recovery, not just talking about it. Tomorrow, I’m on a plane for Phoenix.
Published On: December 12, 2007