I was blessed to attend a Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative event that focused on Pathways to Recovery. Recent emphasis and a growing awareness of mental health and addiction in our communities (including faith communities) made this a perfect learning event. I do not have a lot of knowledge and experience around this, so I am trying to expand my bubbles in both areas.
The dialogue was aimed at understanding two key elements; abstinence and harm reduction models of addictions relief and recovery. By definition abstinence is pretty straight forward, but I knew nothing about what harm reduction was or involved. My simplified explanation of harm reduction would be; an addiction care and recovery model that limits and controls the use of a substance, but does not expect to completely eliminate it (at least not at first). The speakers were very deliberate to make it clear that some models had elements of fluidity and one was not better than the other in all cases. In fact, they were careful to also say that each is not right or wrong, but that our society needs both. People are wired differently; some models work for certain people in different ways and there are many complicated contextual factors that need to be considered.
Karen Bruno led a conversation about harm reduction that started with respecting where people are at, not judging them for what they have done. She talked about supportive housing staff understanding medical recovery models, understanding housing design and being trauma informed in regards to their policies, design and care. Staff went through safety training, self-care practices, possible trauma triggers and what they could offer for education, awareness and support for those facing addiction. Harm reduction acceptance takes a huge measure of empathy.
A few of the elements that were stressed, seemed so reassuringly familiar, they could be posted in most church council rooms. Make space and time, share food, listen and let people share their stories. Sound familiar? One thing that may be different for some faith communities was that volunteers were encouraged to go into the community, be with the people where they are and not wait for them to come to the church doors.
Peer support workers talked about some of the biggest supports being sponsors & mentors, community connection and spirituality. With these supports, those facing addiction could experience levels of healing in various parts of their life, especially if they were not directly battling the pain of withdrawal and the drive to find resources to use. The harm reduction model could give people a safe way to manage the addiction and tackle healing in a holistic way. It is a way of not being on the streets and maintaining some freedoms without being completely institutionalized. Harm reduction may also involve realistic budgeting that factors in money for drug/alcohol use in a safe way.
There were a few things that evening that struck me. I was interested to learn that one step in harm reduction was called stabilization. Maybe that does not sound too novel to you, but they described it as a time of great importance, to key in on support and positive influences. At that moment, the person is in a vulnerable position of making further steps to growth or falling back down in relapse. During stabilization, they are at the point when emotional and spiritual feelings start coming back and can help them heal or make them vulnerable to further triggers. The other thing that came to light for me was that recovery is not an individual thing, it does affect generations. We hear about struggling families and, in turn, struggling children. Then the cycle continues. One person lamented that they repeatedly see parents teaching their kids to be on assistance, just by being stuck in the system.
There is a stigma around mental health and addiction that keeps people in the shadows, without community, without support and it needs to be brought to light for things to change. Challenges that remain hurdles include facing stigma, negative messaging, judgment, living in silos, complex systems with complex paperwork, stains on records, work histories, trauma, waiting lists, transportation costs, intergenerational poverty, lack of support resources and more.
I am grateful for the people who shared their own work, involvement and experience in these areas, including permanent supportive staff workers, peer support workers, transitional and recovery staff workers, and managers of supportive housing and managed alcohol programs. There were also people with the lived experience of past or ongoing addiction that were present and shared in small groups. Some of the agencies represented were the Salvation Army, Excel Society, Grand Manor, Balwin Place and Homeward Trust. I have also been hearing about a support program called Celebrate Recovery from some of the guys I am friends with through the reintegration program.
In a heavy conversation, being faced with brokenness, I want to end with the promises of God who created and loves us all. In the hope that Jesus brings, for all things to be made new again, some of the ways we can get involved in areas of support are one on one, group therapy, work support, education, programming, life skills learning and almost anything that gives meaning and purpose to life. For those facing addiction, even benign things like government issued I.D., leisure access and bus passes can be great supports. Relationship building and time are huge factors and people who genuinely want to help cannot expect changes overnight. There are root causes and complex back stories to much of the brokenness and it will take significant time and resources to care and love each other.
Check out some of the agencies mentioned, websites below or contact me to explore further. Jesse – firstname.lastname@example.org