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Tom Hill

Senior Advisor for Practice Improvement, The National Council for Behavioral Health

A Place for Recovery in the Community

March 10, 2020 | Mental Health Treatment | Comments
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Individuals returning to their communities following episodes of treatment or incarceration often find themselves navigating their recovery in recovery deserts: environments that have scant resources beyond 12-step meetings.

In the past, the onus of blame has been placed on folks who have “failed” to remain abstinent. More and more, we are beginning to understand the role that resource-rich recovery ecologies can play in supporting long-term recovery and helping folks back on their feet if they should fall.

Focus on recovery ecologies that build and support recovery capital has grown out of the recovery advocacy movement that has gained momentum in the past 20 years. A major component of that movement has been the proliferation of recovery community organizations (RCOs).

RCOs are a powerful vehicle to garner and organize local networks of recovery support services: All the makings of a recovery ecology that addresses things like recovery-oriented housing and employment, the need for support in educational institutions, legal issues, family reunification and spiritual/emotional supports that incorporate many pathways of recovery.

One of the most prominent examples of recovery support services has been the development and elevation of peer programs and services. Peer support workers have assumed a familiar service role in treatment and other diverse professional settings, as well as in practice areas that are grounded in grassroots community environments. The emergence of recovery community centers (RCCs) has been an equally important, but lesser known, component of peer recovery support services.

If you are unfamiliar with RCCs, try to imagine a place-based, peer-operated center that offers services and resources, individual and group support, and a place to “be in community” with others, even if it’s just to sit and have a cup of coffee with someone. Not unlike senior centers, they have both structured and unstructured activities and offer a place of sanctuary and refuge with potential for people to heal, grow and self-actualize.

Our society has firmly established places that address the social and developmental needs of an aging population. Recovery community leaders have created similar spaces for individuals and families who are initiating and practicing long-term recovery.

Introducing a presence in the neighborhood by hanging a “recovery lives here” shingle on Main Street has proven to be both a practical strategy that makes recovery visible and a revolutionary one that vocalizes the formerly unspoken. While giving people in recovery a place to go and a place to be, it also inspires them to become change agents in forging recovery both as a norm and a community expectation.

In the past 15 years, RCCs have sprouted up across the country, with a large concentration in the Northeast. Some have morphed from pre-existing 12-step clubhouses – broadening the culture to incorporate multiple pathways – while others have started from scratch. Regardless of their origins, RCCs – like all peer recovery support services – have been initiated and sustained with limited resources.  Despite their on-the-ground success and continued evolution, the lack of a solid and documented evidence base has resulted in limited funding and exposure as promising practice.

This situation is likely to change with the recent publication of articles in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment and Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research – and a third on the way – documenting a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism-funded study, recently completed by the Recovery Research Institute and lead by John F. Kelly, Ph.D.

Findings from this study, involving 36 RCCs across New England and New York State, indicate “strong social supportive elements … facilitating the acquisition of recovery capital and thereby enhancing functioning and quality of life.”

Overall, this study lays down a significant foundation underlying the importance of RCCs as instrumental recovery places, as well as grounds for future research for RCCs and other peer recovery support services. If we are serious about promoting institutions that support recovery, we need to advocate for resources, including research, that will ensure their sustainability.