National Recovery Month serves as an annual celebration to remind all persons that treatment for substance use disorder exists and that recovery is possible. The theme for this year is Recovery is for Everyone: Every Person, Every Family, Every Community .
Mainstream American health care has much to learn from tribal programs as it relates to supporting recovery and community wellness and outreach models. There is a promising practice in Indian Country that offers an opportunity to learn and apply peer recovery support specialist expertise within Western health care settings.
My colleague, Casey Ward-Freeman, a public health specialist, and I worked with the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board in planning a virtual clinic for peer recovery support specialists. We estimated the launch date would be sometime in late summer 2020. However, by March 2020, with COVID-19 taking a firm hold across the country, we realized that it could not wait. We knew that would see a rise in social isolation due to the pandemic, an uptick in substance use was sure to follow, and that this would require trained, competent, and well-staffed behavioral health teams throughout Indian Country.
We realized early that peer recovery support specialists would be essential during a public health emergency like a pandemic. We also knew that these specialists would likely require additional support, given that this role was new to many behavioral health departments in Indian Country. We worked to create a peer recovery support specialist learning community with virtual clinics held twice per month – with one 90-minute session where program faculty, including two peer specialists and one mental health and substance use disorder counselor, lead a session on topical issues and then facilitate a case presentation with recommendations.
During monthly office-hour sessions, faculty offer participants an opportunity to obtain additional personalized support. Participants join with questions, while faculty and peers share their thoughts in a talking circle. The talking circles serve as problem-solving sessions, where faculty and peers provide support, share up-to-date treatment recommendations, and provide community guidance.
It is good to see familiar faces at each virtual clinic, and it is always exciting to meet new people from across Indian Country. There is a strong community of peers who are committed to working to serve the needs of Native people.
Because the program was developed for Native people by Native people, culture is integrated at every level. Faculty and participants are welcomed to share their professional and personal experiences through storytelling and other forms of communication. The presentations integrate Indigenous knowledge and the case studies address the unique needs of the recovery process. The clinics also offer mentorship and support where peers, as well as faculty, share their cultures, speak their languages, and discuss the topics most relevant to Native people from a trauma-informed, recovery-oriented, and relationship-focused perspective.
The peer recovery virtual clinics are now a space where peers can share their stories and validate one another’s recovery experiences and struggles, both personally and professionally. These exchanges also create more competent peers and a strong recovery network.
This ultimately helps provide resilient and responsive recovery services in Indian Country. Plus, we are offering a culturally-resonant way of doing so. We have expanded time for introductions, value relationships and connection, and have a format that encourages everyone to share their gifts and offer topics that are pressing for our communities.
For more information on peer recovery support, visit the Peer Recovery ECHO Program website .