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Peer Recovery Support Specialist Uses Shared Experience to Help Patients

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The UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery Program (ARP) offers many ways of treating alcohol and substance use disorders. Its services include peer support, which provides additional assistance to people who are receiving clinical treatment for substance use disorders. Because peer recovery support specialists are in recovery from their own substance use disorders, they bring special insight and empathy to the challenges patients face.

If a UAB Medicine patient tells a provider that he or she has a substance use disorder, the first step — after immediate medical needs are met — is to link that patient to appropriate care through the consult team. The consult team assesses the patient and  the multidisciplinary staff  help them choose among 12-step therapies, faith-based approaches, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), or a number of other recovery paths. The UAB Addiction Recovery consult team brings together many disciplines to locate possible strategies.

Peer recovery support specialists play a key role in that process. They meet with UAB Medicine patients being evaluated for substance use disorders and care. They talk with them about their history, explain treatment options, and consider what types of support they may need once discharged. They also participate in sessions for patients in the Intensive Outpatient Program, which allows patients to work and attend to other obligations of daily life while recovering.

These specialists have a unique advantage in understanding patients’ needs: They themselves are in long-term recovery, meaning that it’s been at least three years since using their substance of choice.

Making Connections

A peer certification program for substance use disorder was created over a decade ago, bringing research-backed clinical methods to peer training. These specialists undergo a 40-hour training program offered by the Alabama Department of Mental Health, learning proven skills in cognitive behavior therapy, motivational interviewing, and various other pathways to recovery.

One of the first goals of the UAB Addiction Recovery peers is to assist patients in creating long-term recovery plans. Sheila Tyson, who has been a peer support specialist at UAB Medicine for four years, says part of that effort calls for making a connection through empathy. She notes that sharing her own story goes a long way toward truly connecting with a patient.

“When a patient tells me they are struggling with addiction, I speak up right away to let them know — in the plainest terms — that I have been in those dark spaces too,” Tyson says. “I make it clear that I know it’s an illness. I know they need treatment. I understand. Making that connection is an important first step in providing support.”

Expertise, Flexibility, and Understanding

Peer support specialists see patients in a number of settings, such as the Emergency Department and Women & Infants Center. Tyson, a liver transplant recipient, often works closely with teams at the UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute. She responds to consults that are generated from patient admission information or by referrals from providers.

A key part of discussions with patients involves learning about their level of interest in seeking treatment, their expectations, and what they are able to do based on lifestyle, job, family obligations, etc. Tyson says the ARP offers a number of resources to adapt to patients’ needs.

“We have an entire team of medical professionals working here,” Tyson says. “We offer a lot of flexibility, a lot of understanding, and a lot of expertise. I love the fact that a big part of my role as a peer is to bring that specific kind of understanding our patients need. But most important, I work with a team of clinical experts. There’s always someone I can ask, ‘What can we do for this patient who has this certain condition, or this lifestyle, or history?’ When I promise patients that I will guide them to resources that will put them on a path to recovery, I know I’m backed by an excellent team.”

Seeing Both Sides

Peer support specialists have the advantage of experience on both sides of the recovery equation. Their experiences establish credibility and compassion, because they remain mindful of the help they themselves once received.

“When patients tell me any detail of their addiction struggle, I can usually respond with, ‘Me too,’” Tyson says. “When they tell me they’ve tried to get clean and sober but failed, I can say, ‘I tried five times myself before I was able to succeed.’ If they feel hopeless because they have made bad choices, I tell them I know all about bad choices, but our team will help them make good choices going forward.”

Many patients make the decision to seek help only after some other illness or injury brings them to the hospital. But Tyson says she also understands that others arrive because they reached a crisis point, which may mean that it’s the first time they have talked to anyone who knows the successful side of recovery.

“Some patients come from a life in which they have never spoken to anyone who can offer them hope or even knows there is such a thing,” Tyson says. “In their world, they may see only people who are in worse situations than they are. In these cases, I can share my story of success to show them there is hope. I was using drugs and alcohol for 30 years before I found a new way of living after beginning successful recovery. I came into the recovery program when I was homeless. I lost my child to DHR. I lost my home. But 18 years ago I began recovery. Now I have a new home, a job I love, I have my child back, along with some wonderful grandchildren, and I have peace of mind.”

Click here to learn more about the UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery Program.