Thursday morning: I wake up at 8 in the morning in a Phoenix hotel room. I’ve overslept. I’m supposed to be at a workshop in a half-hour. I pull myself together and straggle in just as everyone is introducing themselves.
The workshop is run by META aka Recovery Innovations (RI). I’m here with 11 others from California. Ten are therapist/counselors of various types. The other is employed by an advocacy group. I am here as a journalist. I have heard RI actually DOES recovery rather than simply talks about it. I need to see this for myself.
CEO Gene Johnson and executive director Lori Ashcraft PhD introduce themselves. Both know that recovery is possible because they have done it themselves and have seen their friends do it. Fine, but can recovery happen under an organizational umbrella?
The others attending the workshop want to know that, too. They will be going back to skeptical directors and bureaucrats who will be coming up with a hundred ways to say no. They need “yes” answers, as in yes, this particular service is reimbursable under Medicaid if such and such is done.
During a break, I stroll down the corridor. I am in a modern, though hardly sterile, office building. People are having conversations in the hallways and in various rooms. There is no sense in trying to distinguish patients from staff. Most of the staff are patients. I will soon learn that patients are RI’s secret weapon. From crisis to recovery, peer specialists work alongside medical staff and educators and other professionals.
It is these peer specialists who have been responsible for turning the culture of META on its head. Back in 1999, META was a traditional behavioral health organization. Then Gene Johnson experienced an awakening, what he calls a crisis of conscience. One of his reforms was adding a strong educational component to a reincarnated Recovery Innovations.
I am poking my head in various classrooms. Here, RI literally incubates and hatches its next intake of peer specialists. Other offerings range from basic Recovery 101 type classes to workforce skills training to (in partnership with a local community college) credits toward an associate’s degree.
Later on, I get a chance to talk to some of these students. What was it that turned your lives around? I want to know. How did you go from low self-worth and feeling hopeless to daring to imagine you can lead fulfilling lives?
To a person, they respond it was the presence of the peer specialists. The lived wisdom of a fellow patient has instant street cred. They’ve been in the same place. If they could do it, than so can I, they tell me.
I’m not quite ready to believe what I am hearing. I’ve facilitated support groups, but too many people who attend remain stuck, unable to reach the critical mass needed to change in their lives.
But support groups can only offer support. RI seems to have nurture built into the mix. As individuals gain in confidence, they move from strength to strength. But they are also held accountable. The recovery path involves leading a more disciplined life.
Thursday evening: We are at a gathering at Gene and Lori’s house (they are married). One of the workshop attendees whips out a harmonica and begins belting out something bluesy. Suddenly, I am accompanying him on the spoons.
Friday morning: A van takes us to a crisis center operated by RI. One of the staffers, Jennifer, introduces herself. She tells us that she’d been approaching a state of cynicism and burn-out after years of working in the system. She decided to look for a “crappy job,” one that would not tax her and give her time to pursue her outside interests. RI offered three 12-hour shifts. This could be the ideal crappy job.
Little did she know.
Zero restraint and seclusion is an ironclad rule at the center. Again, peer specialists play a vital role. Their presence on the unit ratchets down the fear factor of people in crisis, many who are brought in involuntarily and by the police. Staff works toward engagement rather than confrontation. First impressions matter. Recovery doesn’t happen when it’s us vs them.
Friday afternoon: The two-day workshop concludes. I go upstairs to interview Gene and Lori, then I head out for a quick dinner with one of the attendees. This isn’t rocket science, she tells me.
Basically, even a Geico cave man can do it. Yes, but can a mental health administrator?
Institutions are resistant to change, and professionals are not exactly bullish on the prospect of hiring patients en masse and having them work alongside them as equals.
Reform - what they call transformation - is going to take time. Everyone is talking a good game, but Recovery Innovations is actually doing it. I saw it with my own eyes. I got what I came here for. I will be talking about it, but I will be talking about people actually doing it.
For more on Recovery Innovations, check out their website.
Published On: December 19, 2007
Living With6 Chronic Condition Guidelines to Live By
Facing the challenges5 Rules for Bipolar Relationships