Efforts to eliminate stigma and increase community inclusion for those with behavioral health issues have grown in popularity in recent years. But their success has been limited, in part because the aim of these efforts has been one-sided. The majority of efforts have focused on increasing a community’s acceptance of people-in-recovery—as though the lack of inclusion is the community’s fault and a change in attitude is all that is needed. In fact, community inclusion is a two-way street, requiring give and take from both the community and people-in-recovery.
Efforts to prepare people-in-recovery to participate in the community have also been one-sided. Typically, we teach them how to use community resources instead of teaching them how to become valued, contributing members of their communities. If people-in-recovery were prepared to make valuable contributions to their communities, they would be accepted and, I’ll go so far as to say, “welcomed.” The need to increase community acceptance would be minimized.
The “Strengths Bank” provides a conceptual framework, a model that can prepare people-in-recovery to attain the balance of give and take that is needed to meet the challenge of community inclusion. Here’s how it works: It begins with a process that prepares people to identify and develop personal strengths. Once people develop and “own” their strengths, they can build the social capital necessary to develop reciprocal relationships. These relationships are what sustain wellness for all of us — and people-in-recovery are no exception. In short, the Strengths Bank provides a framework for putting community inclusion into action.
Let’s set the stage for this conversation by revisiting the salient points of the preceding article on Community Interdependence (Jan./Feb. 2013 issue). In that article, we talked about the continuum of the recovery process: we spoke of the need to launch opportunities for recovery and ended with the need to sustain and grow those opportunities so that people can move beyond the initial phases of their recovery experience. In many places across our country the recovery movement has been launched, and we are now faced with sustaining and extending it. To sustain recovery and maintain wellness, we must create pathways for the journey of each recovering person that lead to continuous learning, growth and contribution. These pathways can only be created and followed in communities where reciprocal relationships build an interdependent network of ongoing natural support.
The litmus test for community living
The most important next step may be a personal one. Each of us can take it by asking ourselves: “Do we really believe that people-in-recovery can become valued contributing members of their communities– giving, not just taking?” If we really believe this, we need to create the next steps in the pathway for sustainable recovery. This may seem daunting, but I’m not scared. I think we can see real and lasting results if we dare to apply what we’ve learned about recovery to the litmus test of real community living – giving, not just taking.
Giving, not just takingis not just a nice thing to do; it is the necessary next step. When any human being contributes in ways that cause others to value us, we tend to be our best selves because we don’t want to lose our good standing in the group. When we are valued by others, we begin to value ourselves; we relate to our strengths and repeat them because we like the feeling of being valued. This is how all human beings build social capital and sustain our individual and collective wellness. This is especially true of humans-in-recovery.
I’m going to keep talking up the virtues of giving in the give and take process because it has not had much press. Striking a healthy balance between giving and taking is important. As I said in the preceding article, listed below are some skills we can role-model and teach people to be comfortable with so they can be skillful givers and takers while they grow into valuable members of their communities:
• Knowing how to give to others in ways that make us both stronger
• Knowing how to take in ways that appreciate the giver without becoming dependent on them
• Expressing one’s real self in ways that others can appreciate
• Appreciating the uniqueness of others
• Asking for help and support without becoming clingy
• Offering support to others while supporting their independence
• Recognizing one’s own resentments and self righteousness as things that interfere with belonging
These skills can be learned and practiced in the context of the Strengths Bank framework in ways that are both enjoyable and meaningful.
The Strengths Bank concept
To belong to any community, one must have three things: 1) the intent to belong, 2) the social skills needed to belong, and 3) a meaningful role to play. Once people have a role to play that has value to them and to others, they can become community members in ways that build and reinforce their own positive identity.
The Strengths Bank provides a framework for recognizing and building personal strengths and then learning how to use them. It emphasizes the importance of putting strengths into action and of testing their effectiveness. It helps people-in recovery to build social capital — the currency that people value and trade in group or community settings. In part 2 of this article, I will provide an analogy using the commercial banking system, which illustrates the process of an individual learning how to bank their strengths and invest them in others.