On being a recovery ally

Once again I turn over Smart Approaches to my friend and colleague Alison Jones Webb. This week she has a great piece on what it means to be a recovery ally. This has been one of the more rewarding aspects of my work as a prevention specialist and in my role as Director at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. For the past year, we’ve been working very closely with the recovery community to help expand and build recovery capacity throughout the state. Read on to learn how you can become a recovery ally. 

Do you love someone with substance use disorder who is in recovery or seeking recovery? Do you work with people who are in treatment for their alcohol or drug use? Do you advocate for prevention initiatives in our schools and communities? Do you care about making your community a place where we can all lead healthy lives?

If you answered ”yes” to any of these questions, you can be a recovery ally.

What is recovery?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA), the federal agency that oversees substance use prevention, treatment and recovery supports, defines recovery this way: Recovery is a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.

According to Faces and Voices of Recovery, a recovery advocacy organization,there are over 23 million Americans in recovery. For these individuals, being in recovery is more than just not using drugs or alcohol. Being in recovery means creating a new, healthier life. People in recovery, especially in early recovery, need support as they navigate new ways to relate to people, deal with stress, and understand the world without drugs or alcohol. Recovery allies can provide this support.

Who can be a recovery ally?

Recovery allies are family members and friends of people in recovery, treatment providers, professionals, community groups and concerned citizens who share an interest in supporting people in recovery from substance use disorder. A recovery ally may be a person in recovery, but not necessarily. Perhaps the most important quality of a recovery ally is the ability to provide meaningful nonjudgmental support, empathy and encouragement to people in recovery.

The Community Toolbox, an online resource that identifies best practices for building healthy communities, identifies allies as an important strategy in changing community norms and practices. Allies can use their resources and authority to influence decision makers in local and state organizations and agencies. They can use their contacts with the media to change the way addiction issues are reported, by infusing a message of hope that recovery is possible.

In fact, allies can be some of the most effective and powerful voices to create support for recovery. Not only do they provide support directly to people in recovery, but they also help others understand the importance of empathy, understanding, fairness and mutual respect. Allies can raise awareness and build bridges by being active publicly, practicing acceptance and support for people in recovery, and speaking out on their behalf.

Allies are not unique to recovery. Every important social issue – improving the lives of people with HIV/AIDS, increasing services for children with autism, ensuring gay rights and marriage equality – has had allies who understand the issue and who have used their passion, position and resources to make positive change.

Allies can be Republicans, Democrats, Independents, or even people who are not politically engaged. The important thing is that allies understand the issue, want to do something about it and take concrete steps to create meaningful change.

What can recovery allies do?

Here are some ways you can become an effective recovery ally in Maine:

  • Learn about the many paths of recovery, including mutual aid groups like 12-step programs and programs for specific occupations like lawyers and doctors, medication assisted treatment, individual and group counseling , and religious guidance. Celebrate all paths to recovery!
  • Helps spread the message through personal and professional networks thatprevention works, treatment is effective, and people recover.
  • Help reduce stigma by learning about substance use disorder and how to talk about it in a way that does not further the discrimination people with substance use disorder face.
  • Show support for people in recovery by attending events like the annual Rally 4 Recovery in Portland and the Recovery Wellness Rally in Augusta each year in September (Recovery Month).
  • Join your local Young People in Recovery (YPR) chapter. In Maine, there are chapters in Bangor, Rockland, Portland, Oxford Hills, and Biddeford.YPR is a national grassroots with over 80 chapters across the country whose core principle is to help young people find and maintain recovery from substance use disorder.
  • If you are an employer, create a safe space for employees to disclose their recovery status and let them know you care about their wellbeing.
  • If you are a teacher, speak in positive terms about the possibility of recovery and the hope that a healthy lifestyle offers.
  • If you are a faith leader, find out what resources your organization has to create a safe place for members of your congregation to talk about substance use and to seek treatment and recovery.

Use your voice

For my part, I am a recovery ally, and that means I do everything I can as a public health professional to make our community supportive of people in recovery. What does being a recovery ally mean to you?

Alison Webb, MA, MPH, is an independent public health consultant with over 20 years experience in community outreach and organizing, substance use and overdose prevention, community based substance use recovery supports, and linking community members with healthcare services. She participates in the Maine chapter of Young People in Recovery, the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance, and the Maine Recovery Communities Coalition. She is President of Nautilus Public Health.

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

About Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C is a Certified Prevention Specialist and is the Director of Operations at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. He currently serves on the Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission as well as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention National Advisory Council. Scott volunteers as the Chair of the marijuana policy education and advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine and is the current Board President of the Maine Council on Problem Gambling. Scott also serves as a Co-chair of the Prevention & Harm Reduction task force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative, the effort convened by U.S. Attorney Thomas E Delahanty, II to address Maine's growing opiate and addiction crisis. Scott is the recipient of the 2015 Maine Public Health Association's Ruth S. Shaper Memorial Award and 2015 Healthy Androscoggin Will Bartlett Award and is also the 2013 recipient of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Prevention Award.