Treating drug, alcohol abuse on Martha’s Vineyard

Program director Jill DeLaHunt (right) has been joined by part-time employee Marlon Garcia, who speaks Portuguese and Spanish. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Dukes County (Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands) has historically had the highest rate of substance abuse in the state, according to Tom Bennett, executive director of the Island Counseling Center of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS). In a conversation last week, Mr. Bennett, who has been with Community Services for 41 years, said, “It’s a huge problem on this island. Addiction is something that we are really struggling to meet the needs of in our fold constantly.”

And we’re coming up on a particularly tough time of year, according to Mr. Bennett, “A lot of people relapse during the holiday season,” he said, going on to mention the stressors unique to the Island — isolation and seasonality — that exacerbate the problem in the off-season.

Despite the indications, however, the Vineyard has not had a dedicated drug and alcohol program since the early 1980s. Until last year, that is, when Mr. Bennett was finally able realize a long-standing dream of establishing an intensive outpatient (IOP) treatment program on the Vineyard.

New Paths Recovery was launched in August 2010, and the program has proved invaluable since — helping serve the needs of a large population of Vineyarders who are either unready to enter an off-Island inpatient facility or are returning from one and need some continuing support. The program offers group and individual counseling, education, and group support through a five-day-a-week schedule of three-hour sessions. The sessions are open to all enrolled participants on a drop-in basis. Interested participants can get involved by simply making a phone call and scheduling an evaluation. All calls are confidential.

Of those who have participated so far, program organizer Jill DeLaHunt said, “It’s a whole spectrum. It’s pretty amazing the level of diversity we have on all fronts. We have professionals and people with little or no work history, young people and elders.” Furthermore, the participants range from those who have never sought professional help for addiction to people who are in recovery, but struggling.

“People are at different places. Some are abstinent, some partially abstinent,” Ms. DeLaHunt said. “What we’re looking for is a willingness to seek harm-prevention or complete abstinence. We meet people where they are.”

Monday through Friday sessions are scheduled at different times of day to accommodate people’s schedules. It is recommended that people attend three sessions each week for four weeks — the minimum required to earn a certificate of completion. Ms. DeLaHunt noted that many people opt to stay longer. Those completing the program can attend a once-a-week alumni group led by a counselor. The program also provides individual and family education sessions.

The program is based on something called the matrix model, which has proven to be the most effective approach to substance abuse. The program is group-oriented and, though there is a structure to the sessions, the model focuses on an interactive rather than a classroom approach with group members participating in a focused discussion.

The sessions are broken down into one-hour segments with breaks inbetween. “The first hour is devoted to really early recovery skills and understanding the brain chemistry piece of both relapse and recovery,” Ms. DeLaHunt said. “The second part has to do with relapse prevention and living in recovery. Things like ‘how do I fold into a recovery group’ (participants are encouraged to try out AA or NA meetings). ‘How do I learn to recognize when I might slip and what I can do to prevent that.’ For the last part of the session, group members share what’s going on with them and present a goal or plan for the week.”

“The biggest benefit is that you meet other people who are in early recovery and might be going through similar issues,” said one man who recently completed the program. “As bad as I feel about what I’m going through, there were always people with bigger problems.”

“We also do a lot on dual diagnoses,” Ms. DeLaHunt said. “Many people with substance-abuse issues are also dealing with other mental health issues. We talk about dealing with trauma and depression and other contributing issues.

“We also have people who are working with process addictions.” She gives a few examples of these — Internet addiction, gambling, food, shopping.”

Nicotine addiction has recently become a priority with the New Paths program. “Tobacco-related diseases are the number one killer of people in recovery,” Mr. Bennett said.

Along with Ms. DeLaHunt and one part-time employee, Marlon Garcia who speaks Portuguese and Spanish as well as English, the program also makes use of volunteer peer leaders from the recovery community. “They can provide inspiration and add their stories into the mix,” Ms. DeLaHunt said, adding that they can always use volunteers who have a period of clean time.

Participation in the discussions is not required. “Most people are pretty anxious about going to a group, but you settle in and you start feeling that safety and respect,” Mr. Bennett said.

“If you’re willing to say your name at the beginning of group and what you’re going to do at the wrapup, that’s enough,” Ms. DeLaHunt said. “If you’re willing to put that much in, you can just be there. It’s a big step just to be there.”

Ms. DeLaHunt points to the findings of the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, when explaining that only a very few of those in need actually receive any help for alcohol or substance abuse problems. She says, “The people who come in are really a miracle. It’s a very small percentage.” She adds, “We hope that what we create here is a place of respect and safety for people as they start this courageous and difficult journey.”

Both she and Mr. Bennett are hoping that the new program will help alleviate the very real issue that we face on the Island and provide some hope for people in the throes of addiction. Says Mr. Bennett,

“Sometimes people who are having to deal with the disease of addiction feel very hopeless and sometimes they feel like it’s beyond their ability to overcome. If they reach out and seek services, there are a lot of people who recover and get back to having lives that are productive and meaningful to them. There is always hope.”

To schedule an evaluation, call 508-693-7900, ext. 384. For more information, call Jill DeLaHunt at 508-693-7900 ext. 397.