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Inside Recovery Innovations: What I learned

May 19, 2011
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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Culture transforms tragedy into 'lived experience,' turns recovering peers into taxpaying citizens

Not long ago, I mentioned briefly to Lori Ashcraft, PhD—a regular contributor and member of the Behavioral Healthcare editorial board—that I was headed to Phoenix for a conference. At that point, she invited me to visit Recovery Innovations, one of the founding organizations in the “recovery” movement. I accepted, hoping to resolve my own questions (and frankly, ignorance) about what “recovery” really means, how it feels, how it happens and for whom, and what it can do for people’s lives.

Over the next two days, I really got an education.
The people who taught me about recovery weren’t the usual suspects: CEOs, CFOs, CIOs or licensed clinical personnel, though all of these at Recovery Innovations-Arizona were certainly willing and open to talking. Instead, I learned from “peers,” “participants,” “citizens,” and “guests,” who, with the help of these C-level individuals and administrators (many of whom are peers as well), pretty much run the place.

 The atmosphere at Recovery Innovations-Arizona (and, I expect, at RI locations serving California, Washington, and North Carolina) is positive: smiles are everywhere and hugs are not at all uncommon. Yet this outward ease and camaraderie coexists with a culture that fosters and expects constant and urgent change in the lives of everyone who walks through the door. This change is embodied in everyone, at all stages of recovery:

  • With the help of peer support specialists, individuals new to RI immediately engage in peer relationships that encourage and empower them to tell their own stories, acknowledge the wisdom and value of their “lived experience,” and realize that recovery is possible.
  • Next, individuals begin work on their wellness recovery action plans (WRAP), which are rooted in the work of Mary Ellen Copeland. These individualized processes and plans, developed with the support of a peer coach, challenge each to recognize his or her own strengths, draw wisdom from the past, and consider new ways that he or she can master their own symptoms and crises with available recovery tools and supports, rather than, for example, a hospital admission.
  • Individuals who’ve progressed through WRAP are then invited to take RI’s Peer Support Training, an 80-hour program that teaches them how to be peer support specialists for other individuals. Completion of this coursework opens the potential for employment as peer support specialists, an opportunity that hundreds of RI participants have leveraged into part-time or full-time employment at RI. This is possible because Arizona’s state Medicaid system is one of many nationwide that reimburse for peer support services. (Many move on to other employment as well.)

Among the peer roles at RI are:

  • Recovery educators, who share a range of recovery, health, wellness, and practical skills through daily courses available at one of Recovery Innovations-Arizona’s three “Wellness City” campuses in the Phoenix area (east, central, west). Similar Wellness City campuses are found at RI locations in California, Washington, and North Carolina, too. In Phoenix, RI-Arizona works with Glendale Community College (GCC) to make college-level offerings available to the citizens of Wellness City with on-campus peer support.
  • Recovery coaches, who support individuals in various stages of recovery, notably in the creation and practice of WRAP.
  • Recovery coaches for individuals who access RI’s supportive and transitional housing programs.
  • Peer Advocacy Specialists, who encourage and empower individuals in hospitals or institutions to recognize the hope of recovering control and power in their lives by responding to their circumstances with recovery-focused tools and approaches.

Peers “connect” with people in crisis treatment and recovery

I saw the emotional impact of peer support throughout my visit. But I didn’t realize its practical financial value until I spoke with psychiatrist Jacqueline Pynn, MD, Florence Wolfe, LCSW, and Kathy, an RI-trained peer advocacy specialist working at the Maricopa Integrated Health System’s Behavioral Health Annex in central Phoenix. This is one of the hospitals to which individuals in crisis are referred, typically for 10 days, after an initial evaluation at RI’s Psychiatric Recovery Center—the region’s primary “evaluating center” for individuals in a behavioral health crisis.