According to the Surgeon General’s report, “Facing Addiction in America,” addiction is a chronic, but treatable, disease of the brain’s reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry. It is not a moral failing. In fact, genetics and life circumstances play a major role in someone’s susceptibility to addiction. For example. those who have difficultly connecting with others due to emotional trauma, brain injury, or mental illness may “bond” instead with alcohol or drugs. Adolescents whose pre-frontal cortexes (the brain’s judgment center) are still developing, may begin using alcohol or drugs to numb their emotional pain or to “fit in” (studies show that 90% of addicts began using when they were teenagers). Most recently, individuals who have experienced chronic pain due to surgery may find themselves addicted to opioids legally prescribed by a doctor. (It only takes 14 days of taking opioid medication for it to start changing the chemical balance in the brain.) When a doctor stops prescribing the opioids, addicted individuals sometimes turn to less expensive, readily available heroin. Lastly, addiction has a ripple effect to family systems and communities. Each addicted individual impacts an average of eight other people.
The statistics about the number of Americans who are addicted to alcohol, prescription opioids, and illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamines, hallucinogens, and inhalants are horrifying. Currently, 23 million Americans are battling the disease of addiction. In New York State alone, 100,000 individuals receive treatment for addiction each day; unfortunately, this is only a fraction of the people who need it. According to some estimates, due to the pervasive stigma attached to addiction and myths about the effectiveness of recovery, 90% of people with a substance use disorder never receive the treatment they need. “The media has done a really good job of showing the problem,” said Bob Ross, President and CEO of St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Centers (commonly called St. Joe’s) in Saranac Lake, NY. “Now we need to get them to celebrate the success of recovery. The more we can emphasize success, the more it becomes a positive snowball. Addiction is a chronic, treatable disease akin to diabetes and asthma. There is a lot more successful recovery than people understand.”
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), research on the science of addiction and the treatment of substance use disorders has led to the development of methods that help people stop using alcohol and drugs and resume productive lives, also known as being in recovery. Like other chronic diseases, treatment for addiction usually isn’t a cure. But addiction can be managed successfully. Individualized treatment plans for each client, which consist of detoxification, behavior therapy, medicine, support groups, and counseling, enables people to counteract addiction’s disruptive effects on their brain and behavior, re-connect with family and friends, obtain meaningful employment, and regain control of their lives. Counselors at St. Joe’s select from a range of services that meet the specific medical, mental, social, occupational, family, and legal needs of their patients to help in their recovery. The chronic nature of addiction means that some people relapse, or return to alcohol or drug use, after an attempt to stop. Since treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply rooted behaviors as well as following a medical plan, relapse doesn’t mean treatment has failed. When a person relapses, it indicates they need to speak with their doctor to resume treatment, modify it, or try another treatment. “It’s not always possible to be linear in recovery,” explained Ross. The acknowledged goal for most in addiction treatment is to receive six months of treatment and aftercare services in progressively less restrictive environments, for example going from detox, to inpatient, to outpatient, to supportive housing. Recovering addicts must manage their disease the way diabetics manage their blood sugar. Relapse rates for alcohol and drug use are similar to relapse rates for other chronic medical illnesses.” With over 40 years of experience in the addiction services field in both private and public entities on a state, national, and international level, Ross speaks from extensive experience. “If the stigma is reduced, a lot of positive things happen. For example, securing good jobs is essential to restoring and maintaining stable families.”
A SPIRITUAL BEGINNING
The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement opened St. Joseph’s in 1971. The first residents were a small number of alcoholic men in their fifties. Today, St. Joe’s includes a 67-bed inpatient rehabilitation service; a 25-bed intensive residential program for veterans; a 28-bed adolescent inpatient rehabilitation center (Rose Hill in Massena, NY); two County Jail Treatment Programs (Essex and Franklin Counties); a 20-unit Supportive Housing Project in Malone for individuals and families in recovery; and three supportive housing projects – one for veterans in Saranac Lake, one for women with young children in Ticonderoga, and one for individuals completing the adolescent inpatient program in Massena. St. Joe’s is also in the process of setting up a10-bed detoxification unit and Open Access Assessment facility (open 24/7) and an expanded outpatient clinic in Saranac Lake in a combined facility to open in 2019. Outpatient services are also available in Malone,
Massena, Elizabethtown, Ticonderoga, Keeseville, Tupper Lake, and a satellite clinic at the Mountain Lake Academy in Lake Placid. All told, St. Joseph’s serves approximately 1,400 individuals each year.
In summary, in its 47 years of operation, St. Joe’s has gone from treating middle-aged men for alcoholism, to an agency that treats men and women and their families, with separate programs for adolescents and veterans, for a wide range of substance use disorders. The agency has also progressed from a $5 million operating budget to one of approximately $15 million in the past decade, now receives referrals from 56 of New York’s 62 counties, and operates in 17 locations in five counties.
While addiction to alcoholism continues to be a problem for many patients, especially teenagers, last year 66% of outpatient treatment was for opioid and heroin addiction—a 106% increase. Additionally, St. Joe’s Director of Inpatient Services, Zachary Randolph, stated, “Our Inpatient program has experienced a 97% increase in heroin and opioid diagnoses over the last year.”
Explained Ross: “Our goal at St. Joe’s is to provide the most excellent treatment programs using current best practices and tools. As a parallel piece, we are working in the community and through the media on stigma reduction. We aim to be a major positive player in the communities in which we operate. Recovery is possible.”
HELP FOR VETERANS
A 13-year veteran of the US Army with an MA in Marriage and Family Therapy, Master Addiction Counselor, Samuel Hall, has been the Director of the Col. C. David Merkel Veterans Residence since its inception in 2014. The 25-bed facility can accommodate veterans who have an addiction problem (currently a 50-50 split between alcohol and opiates) many of whom also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and other co-occurring mental health challenges, in a residential program for up to two years. Unlike many veteran’s programs, St. Joe’s accepts veterans with any level of service discharge.
“This length of stay gives them a much longer period of time to get healthy and re-engaged,” said Hall. “Since they also do community service as part of their treatment, many veterans find they like the North Country, and stay. They get jobs, build families, and become vital members of the community.”
To this end, St. Joe’s partners with Homeward Bound Adirondacks, which will soon be housed in its new location on Depot Street in Saranac Lake, to assist veterans with important after- care services such as transportation to appointments, crisis outreach, and support groups. The Commissioned Canine Program, an additional element of the treatment continuum of care, trains services dogs to live with veterans upon their release.
HELP IN JAILS
St. Joseph’s also provides addiction treatment counselors in the Franklin and Essex County jails. St. Joseph’s Director of Community Services, Robin Gay, states, “Providing treatment to incarcerated individuals offers a positive focus for their time in jail, and importantly, reduces both the likelihood of returning to using and decreases the recidivism rate of further involvement with the criminal justice system.”
HELP FOR ADOLESCENTS
With room for 28 adolescents ages 12-20, Rose Hill is a residential program that caters to young people and their families in need of addiction treatment. According to Jennifer Barron, Assistant Director, who has worked at Rose Hill for 19 years, opioid addiction is the most common substance use disorder the teenagers are presenting. Most get prescription medication from their parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets. When this is no longer available, they turn to heroin they buy on the street. Barron sees marijuana and nicotine as “gateway drugs” for this population. Adolescents may stay for 90 days or longer if they need assistance with schooling, finding housing, and reintegrating back into the community. Program Director, Tina Buckley, added, “At Rose Hill, each young person is assigned a personalized treatment team of professionals, including licensed and certified providers who have the capacity to address each individual’s substance use disorder, mental health, and educational needs to assist them on their journey into recovery.”
TECHNOLOGY TOOLS FOR RECOVERY
As part of their mission to use best practices and the latest tools to aid their clients, St. Joe’s has incorporated Telehealth Services (video conferencing). “We were one of the first organizations to incorporate telepractice services into our treatment program,” said Zachary Randolph, Inpatient Services Director. “A patient has a nurse or clinician with them in a private conference room, and they can conference with a medical professional located elsewhere about their Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), psychological needs, or any other issues. This means we can get patients what they need more quickly, and, especially in the rural North Country, without transportation concerns.”
To further assist former residents and their families, particularly during early recovery, St. Joseph’s received a significant technology grant from the Adirondack Health Institute to purchase and implement an app (smart phone application) from the Chess Health company. The app can help patients stay connected to others sharing the journey of recovery–a vital element of successful, sustained sobriety.
A GREAT COMPANY TO WORK FOR
Voted six times as a “Best Place to Work in New York State”, St. Joe’s is committed to making sure its employees continue to develop their skills as well as feel valued and appreciated.
“We use an employee survey each year to gain information on how to improve things,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, Chief Talent Officer. “We currently have 245 employees who do everything from counseling, to admissions, to diet planning, recreational therapy, maintenance, after- care, financial, and more. Due to the multi-faceted nature of patient care, we are expanding, and therefore looking to hire more people, of all skills, in the future.”
“In addition, we have our Leadership Academy,” Kirkpatrick shared, “Which is a nine-month program in which selected employees develop their knowledge, explore their career objectives, and create a development plan to help them reach their full potential. To date, 43% of Academy graduates have received promotions within the agency.”
RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE
Board member Vince Connors speaks from experience. “I was a functioning alcoholic who entered St. Joe’s at the insistence of my family in 1984. I wasn’t really sure I needed treatment until, four weeks in, as part of the family program, I heard first-hand, how my behavior was affecting those closest to me. It was then I felt the disease to my toes. I went to Schenectady and spent three months at St. Joe’s Guest House—away from the triggers and stressors that exacerbated my disease. I have been in recovery ever since.”
Connors has been associated with St. Joe’s for 33 years, and is greatly involved in its alumni association, the Fellowship. The Fellowship has approximately 4,000 members many of whom directly support each other, particularly new graduates, in sustained recovery. “The Fellowship is a crucial tool to long-term recovery,” explained Connors. A highlight of the year at St. Joseph’s occurs each Columbus Day week- end when members of the Fellowship return to campus in Saranac Lake to celebrate centuries of combined sobriety. St. Joseph’s role of supporting the Fellowship through peer advocacy has helped sustain the alumni organization since its inception in 1972.
The good news is 20 million Americans are currently in long-term recovery, and hope is available to everyone who suffers from the disease of addiction. Moving into its fifth decade of operation, St. Joe’s is committed to being part of this solution.
As St. Joseph’s Board Chair, Deacon Steven DeMartino shared, “St. Joseph’s ultimate goal is to support individuals and families in sustained recovery from addiction, and to provide our resources in a manner that acknowledges the dignity and worth of all individuals.”