September is recognized as National Recovery Month, across Massachusetts and the entire country. Rallies and celebrations have been promoting the gains made by those in recovery and reinforcing the message that prevention works, treatment is effective, and people can and do recover. Events have been sponsored by state and national advocacy groups such as Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery (MOAR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and providers such as Vinfen and other members of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare.
We have known for years that long-lasting recovery from alcohol and drug addiction is possible for many. But that does not mean the course is either easy or often a straight course of improvement without relapses. We have also learned the value of people with “lived experience” or peers in successful recovery. This began with Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, the first organization in which people succeeding in their own recovery announced their problem, then coached and supported others who were starting their own journeys. Today, disclosing an addiction, and accessing treatments are increasingly part of our society. The growing body of evidence shows that a variety of interventions are effective when used in a recovery model, especially if supported by coaches or peers.
What about recovery from serious mental illness? When I was a graduate student in the 1970’s, science proposed that some serious mental illnesses were unalterable life-long chronic or persistent conditions. This was based on studies which showed limited success of medication and psychiatric therapies, and supported by science that proposed that the brain is not “plastic” and could not significantly change in adulthood. Today we know better.
Over the past 25 years, the field of mental health has discovered that significant recovery from the debilitating effects of brain diseases is possible – even for people with such serious conditions as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, or severe PTSD. We now know that a variety of interventions, including talk therapies, medication, and coaching can all have positive impacts so that people with mental illness can live full and productive lives in their community. And as we have found with substance use disorders, peers can be extremely helpful in engaging and supporting people in their recovery from psychiatric conditions.
At Vinfen, we began to recognize the value of peers in 1993, when Vinfen hired Moe Armstrong, a Vietnam veteran living with schizophrenia who was succeeding in his recovery and wanted to help others. Moe subsequently established peer-to-peer “Reach One, Teach One” programs which helped people across Massachusetts, and then launched the Vet-to-Vet peer support program which touched veterans throughout the country, with which he continued involvement in Connecticut through the VA until he retired a few years ago.
Today Vinfen, as do our sister organizations in behavioral health, has dozens of peers working in our company, who undaunted by prejudice and discrimination have disclosed their own lived experience and are helping others in their recovery. It is a story worth talking about and celebrating. We encourage anyone considering starting on their own journey to begin today. Help is available, and we hope you will take advantage of it.