September marks National Recovery Month, an annual observance to promote and support new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices, the emergence of a strong and proud recovery community and the dedication of service providers and community members across the nation who make recovery possible in all its forms.
Recovery is a personal journey of hope, empowerment and autonomy. While everyone’s journey is unique and may not look the same, know that recovery is possible. There are more treatments, services and community support systems than ever before, and they work.
Stigma surrounding mental health and substance use challenges still exist and can hinder people from asking for, and accepting, support during challenging times. However, education is a powerful tool for change. Countless individuals are working to create safe spaces to have conversations about mental health and substance use. Famous athletes, entertainers, politicians and others are using their high visibility platforms to raise awareness and encourage these discussions.
Through education and awareness trainings like Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), we can learn to understand the indicators that someone in our lives may experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge and be better equipped to provide them with the timely support they need and deserve. It is important to understand that recovery from a mental health and/or substance use challenge is truly a journey – there will be moments of elation, and likely times of ongoing challenge. This is a common experience among people in recovery; try not to lose faith in yourself, the person you are supporting or the recovery process itself.
MHFA can be a vital tool in a person’s recovery path. I’ve found MHFA’s 5-step Action Plan (ALGEE) to be a helpful roadmap. You can literally #BeTheDifference in someone’s life by knowing how to understand, recognize and respond to someone experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge or crisis by following these five steps, although not always in this exact order.
A: Approach, assess for risk of suicide or harm and assist. Approach the person and let them know you care about them, have noticed some changes in their behavior and want to support them. Determining when and how to say something is a critical — and difficult step — in supporting someone in recovery. Often, as we notice potential challenges along the recovery path, we hesitate to say anything out of fear we will anger the person, that the person will think we are disappointed in them or because we’re not sure that the observation is serious enough to warrant a conversation. We may be concerned with the person’s own perception of their recent changes in behavior and their willingness to accept that these changes are having a detrimental impact on them at home, at work and in their community.
While supporting someone as a First Aider, it’s important to genuinely care for their wellbeing and understand that substance use and mental health challenges are not a choice. There may be setbacks and the person we care about may not immediately acknowledge there is a problem. We can still be there for them.
L: Listen nonjudgmentally. This allows the person to share their perception of how their recovery is going, what challenges they may be experiencing and how or if they would like to be supported. We know from the MHFA curriculum that having a good social support system is an important protective factor for individuals in recovery. Being able to share challenges with trusted individuals can be helpful in preventing early symptoms from worsening or, with existing challenges, avoiding a relapse.
If the journey is an ongoing positive experience, continue to engage the person as your relationship typically allows and acknowledge and celebrate their milestones. If the person is experiencing difficulties, listen to their perception of the impact their behavior is having on themselves and those around them. As Mental Health First Aiders, we should meet the person where they’re at and listen as they share about events or experiences that influence their habits and behaviors. Key aspects of listening nonjudgmentally include:
This critical conversation better equips us to empathize with our loved one’s experience and to utilize the remaining steps of the Action Plan.
G: Give reassurance and information. Throughout the recovery journey, it is important to ensure the person knows we care, we are there for them and recovery is possible. Genuine expressions of care like: “I care about you,” “I love you,” “You are not alone,” or “We are here for you,” can help create trust and opportunities for open discussion with friends, co-workers and loved ones. Avoid saying things like, “I’m always here for you,” unless you mean it and can always be available, day or night.
One helpful approach is to create a support team of family, friends, co-workers, etc. Most of us are not available 24/7 — we have full lives with jobs, families and other responsibilities. Recovery from substance use and mental health challenges will often be a life-long journey, and as supporters, it’s a good idea to ensure the person has a network of resources. That way, we can give ourselves grace knowing that sometimes, we may need to step away from actively participating in another’s recovery journey to care of ourselves.
E: Encourage professional help. Sometimes the person we are supporting may benefit from professional help including from physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists or substance use professionals. Part of the person’s treatment plan may include medication and/or therapy. If this is the case, it is vital that the person’s support team encourages continued engagement with these professional supports.
When possible, consider “outside the box” approaches to ensuring the person we are supporting can engage with these resources. For example, they may be able to get approval from their employer to work a flex schedule to accommodate appointments. If the person you are supporting does not have insurance coverage for mental health and/or substance use treatments, you can consider conducting research on community resources that offer no charge or low-cost services to share with the person. Better yet, ask if they’d like to be part of the research process. Even if we have the proper credentials to refer someone to a particular type of professional or begin medication, without their buy-in to their treatment plan, the chances for successful recovery are diminished.
If the person you are supporting has never received professional help before, remember that it can be a daunting process. Encourage the person to have an open mind and start slow, perhaps with their primary care physician, and work together from there.
E: Encourage self-help and other strategies. During this step, we can provide ongoing support for the person, and ourselves, by capitalizing on people, activities and programs that we enjoy and make us feel good, especially about ourselves. Self-care is vital to coping with everything from the seemingly insignificant to the major life stressors and can help avoid cumulative stress and the undesirable impact it may have on the person’s recovery journey. Self-care strategies may include spending quality time with family, engaging with coworkers, participating in faith communities, exercising, journaling, meditating, attending support groups, volunteering or practicing hobbies, to name just a few.
Please keep in mind, there may be points during the person’s recovery journey when they will need immediate professional help more than self-help strategies.
Finally, despite our best efforts, sometimes the person may not want (or believe they need) support during their recovery journey. This may occur when we voice our perceptions of someone’s behavior and the negative impact it is having. The person may get angry, shut down or even leave. Try your best not to take it personally and remember you have “planted a seed” for the person to consider.
If a conversation does not go as planned, all is not lost. Even if they don’t immediately acknowledge a problem exists, when we treat people with respect and dignity and show genuine empathy, they will know we care and are there for them. It is not unusual for a person to discount our concerns, only to later realize they may need our support after all and take the first step toward recovery.
Thank you to all within the proud recovery community, the service providers and community members across the nation who make recovery in all its forms possible.
Mental Health First Aid USA (MHFA). (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for Adults Assisting Adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
Recovery Month. (n.d.). What is Recovery Month? Recovery Month. https://rm.facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/.
The Association for Addiction Professionals. (n.d.). National Recovery Month. The Association for Addiction Professionals. https://www.naadac.org/national-recovery-month.