North Suffolk Mental Health Association Adapts to Helping Those in Recovery Amid COVID-19

Last week marked one month in isolation for most of us in East Boston.  While this has been a trying time for all, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a possible deadly challenge for those in recovery.

During these uncertain times, those in recovery are struggling to find resources to help obtain their sobriety with local AA and NA meetings and in-person sobriety events being canceled.

It’s been really difficult for those in recovery to feel connected from a distance.

However, places like Eastie’s North Suffolk Mental Health Association (NSMHA) have adapted and found creative ways to help their clients remain on a path of sobriety.

“Some are having difficult times,” said NSMHA Director of Recovery Support Services Katie O’Leary, a recovering addict herself. “It’s a tough thing to say but a lot of people are going to relapse but we are trying our best to help this vulnerable population we work with from heading down that road.”

O’Leary said March 23, 2020 changed the face of the recovery community in the state by limiting gatherings to less than 10 people and encouraging the Commonwealth to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without recovery support groups and traditional face to face treatment, what does the recovery journey for the disease of addiction now look like?

First off, O’Leary says, addiction is progressive and fatal if not arrested.

“The disease wants addicts and alcoholics isolated and alone with little to no support, however the recovery community thrives on the very opposite–connection,” she said.

O’Leary said NSMHA  made the very difficult decisions in the early days of the COVID crisis to close its doors to the general public. Staff came to the office over a weekend in March and worked tirelessly to move client appointments and reach out to individuals for support. Teams and management met all day one day in March to strategize and come up with innovative and creative ways to support this very vulnerable population, who would soon be told to stay at home.

“We kept running into the same roadblock HIPAA and 42CFR, which protect client’s/patient’s confidentiality,” said O’Leary. “As an agency we moved forward with an abundance of caution. Our entire operation has been shifted to Telehealth and recovery supports have been increased agency wide. There was a tremendous learning curve with this process and some of the staff and clients had never worked with some of these platforms before such as Zoom and Webex. Although we came across quite a few obstacles we came together as not only an agency but as a community. North Suffolk worked closely with community partners to ensure individuals had any support and resources that were available to them.”

For example, at the NSMHA run recovery home, The Fran Rowan Meridian House in Eastie, the support staff and clients are running multiple virtual recovery meetings each week for residents.

“They are even able to watch AA and NA online conventions that are broadcasting around the clock,” said O’Leary. “We have even been able to connect clients with featured guest speakers via Zoom on Sunday evenings.”

In the end, O’Leary said the recovery community is resilient and will come back stronger than ever.

“This pandemic will strengthen and enhance the recovery journey going forward,” she said. “:We have come up with out of the box techniques to enrich our tool box and fill it with unconventional items that will support our recovery journey. I know for me, I had an opportunity to check out more meetings whether it be AA, Refuge Recovery, AL-anon. I would never have taken the opportunity to go to meetings virtually if I didn’t feel forced. And if I was working from the office, I would not have had the time.  If you have a loved one or a friend suffering from addiction or know someone in recovery reach out, check in on them, show them they are not as alone as they feel.”

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