Mind and Body

The best way to honor Jim Gillen

A new teen recovery center opens as a pilot diversion program closes

Photo by Richard Asinof

The back entrance to the Jim Gillen Teen Center, which celebrating its grand opening on Thursday, June 22.

Photo by Richard Asinof

The family of Jim Gillen cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the JIm Gillen Recovery Center.

Photo by Richard Asinof

The extended family of RICARES at the opening of the Jim Gillen Teen Center: From left, Monica Smith, Michelle McKenzie, Ian Knowles and Abby Stenberg.

Photo by Richard Asinof

Jonathan Goyer, community recovery advocate, in front of a portrait of Jim Gillen.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/25/18
The legacy of Jim Gillen and his pioneering work as a recovery community advocate is continuing with the opening of the Jim Gillen Teen Recovery Center, an initiative led in large part by Abbie Stenberg, one of Gillen’s protégés. At the same time, the pilot diversion efforts under the Recovery Navigation Program will be shutting down as of July 16.
How can there be broader public input in strategy discussions beyond the working groups as part of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention? What is the proper forum for the recovery community to share their concerns and suggestions about a new advertising campaign that features disturbing portrayals of self-inflected violence? With the passage of new legislation permitting the distribution of fentanyl test strips in Rhode Island, assuming the Governor signs the legislation, how will such distribution be coordinated? When will alcohol intoxication become a priority of intervention and prevention efforts?
One of the favorite phrases of Jim Gillen was: “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” The recovery community’s strategy to develop a voice that could be heard – what many termed a constituency of consequence – needs to evolve beyond what many have termed the clinical approach, with a focus on economic determinants and social connectivity. The success of those pushing for the passing of Kristen’s Law, with its emphasis on criminalizing accidental overdoses, even with the potential cost of $1 million to taxpayers for every person charged, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced under the law, demonstrates that there is still a strong stigma that seeks to blame and to punish those involved using drugs [but not alcohol].

PROVIDENCE – When the Jim Gillen Teen Recovery Center held its grand opening celebration on the evening of Thursday, June 21, at its North Main Street location, there was a palpable emotional content to the gathering, as many former colleagues paid tribute to the legacy that Jim Gillen left as one of the brightest stars in the Rhode Island recovery community constellation.

Gillen, who died in 2015 following a lengthy battle with cancer, was a pioneering advocate who helped to launch the first Anchor Recovery Community Center in 2008 as well as the peer recovery coaching initiative that has become an integral part of the recovery strategy in Rhode Island.

Gillen was known for his infectious smile, his engaging style of persuasion and his perseverance as a community builder.

Among those offering testimonials were: Sen. Josh Miller; Tom Coderre, senior advisor to Gov. Gina Raimondo; Deborah O’Brien, president and COO of The Providence Center; Deb Dettor, director of the Anchor Recovery Community Center, Holly Fitting, vice president of Residential and Recovery Services at The Providence Center; and Kelly Gillen, Jim’s daughter.

Also honored was Abigail Stenberg, a peer recovery coach who has taken on the mantle of leadership in advocating for the teen center – continuing a tradition of support by the recovery community that once helped her find a path toward healing.

As Jim Gillen described what happened in an interview with ConvergenceRI in April of 2015, a few months before he died: “Abbie is a young lady who works for us [as a peer recovery coach]; I stopped to see here yesterday. She said Sports Illustrated just contacted her, and they are interested in doing a story on young athletes who ran into problems with painkillers because of a sports injury.”

Gillen continued: “This kid, she came to us [at Anchor] a couple of years ago, and Holly [Cekala] and I were sitting there, and she came in, drops her bag on the floor, she’s in tears, and she says: ‘Jim, you have to help me, you have to help me.’”

“We did our hustle, using the creative, dynamic approach, and got her into recovery housing. She’s now in school, she started as a volunteer, and now we’ve hired her.” [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story, “The recovery community according to Jim Gillen.”

For Stenberg, the motivation has been to create a supportive peer recovery community that did not exist when she was a teen. As she explained it at a gathering in 2017, “When I was in high school, I had no positive peers around me who were trying to do the same thing. I had no support, no safe place to go after school, no one telling me that is was OK to be in recovery – in fact, that is was cool to be in recovery,” Stenberg said.

Turn, turn turn: a time for opening, a time for closing
What wasn’t talked about or discussed publicly at the opening ceremony was the fact that the Recovery Navigation Program, a pilot program also run by The Providence Center, is slated to close down on July 16.

The program, which provided a diversion option for emergency services in order to provide intoxicated people a safe and supportive place to stabilize, had been located above the Emmanuel House homeless shelter in South Providence. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Moving beyond dilly dilly.”]

The total admission numbers for 2017 were 836, all involving alcohol intoxication, although not all were unique visits, according to The Providence Center. In addition to people dropped off by EMS services from Providence, Cranston and Central Falls, there were also walk-ins and referrals from the Anchor MORE outreach program and other community organizations.

The pilot program, which had been funded initially through the R.I. General Assembly, had been expected to transition to Medicaid-supported funding, but that proved to be difficult to navigate around eligibility requirements for Medicaid, according to sources.

A new program is envisioned to replace the Recovery Navigation Program, to be located in a different place, according to sources. When that replacement program will be up and running is unknown.

The Rhode Island legislative two-step
The legislative dance concerning what to do about substance use policy continued at the R.I. General Assembly during its 2018 session, two steps forward, two steps back.

Among the steps forward included:

Passage by the House and the Senate of legislation to permit and encourage the distribution of fentanyl test strips under the Good Samaritan law. The test strips, which cost $1 each, would enable people to identify the deadly presence of fentanyl, the leading drive of OD deaths in Rhode Island. The legislation awaits signature by the Governor.

The pending passage of an amendment to the Good Samaritan law that would cover underage drinking for people who report alcohol-related medical emergencies.

Among the steps backward included:

Passage by the House and the Senate of legislation known as Kristen’s Law, which would criminalize the distribution of illicit substances that result in an overdose death, punishable by a sentence of up to life imprisonment if a person is arrested, charged, prosecuted and convicted. The legislation, which was passed despite broad opposition by many health professionals and recovery community advocates, also awaits the Governor’s signature, who has indicated that she intends to sign it.

[Recovery community advocates who are against Kristen’s Law, calling it a doubling down on the failed war on drugs, have scheduled a protest on Monday, June 25, at 4 p.m. in the State House rotunda to protest the planned signing by Gov. Raimondo.]

The deletion from the budget of economic development funds targeted to support workforce training for those Rhode Islanders in recovery.

A continuing conversation about stigma and an ad campaign
At the most recent meeting of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention, a new advertising campaign was unveiled, sharing three YouTube videos produced by the Knowledge Is Truth marketing firm. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A tale of five urban narratives that never seem to connect.”]

At the opening ceremony of the Jim Gillen Teen Recovery Center, there was an undercurrent of continuing discussion about the ad campaign: some found the self-inflicted violence portrayed in the campaign offensive; others expressed the belief that anything that would move the needle around prevention would be worthwhile to try; still others recalled the failure of an earlier TV campaign, showing eggs frying, with the over-narration, “This is your brain on drugs.”

As one member of the recovery community wrote to ConvergenceRI, posing a number of questions about the campaign:

If the target demographic for the ads is 18-34 year olds in Rhode Island, does this ignore the Surgeon General’s report that stated 75 percent of addictions start during adolescence? Does that ignore our experience that targeting 18-year-olds for prevention efforts is too often years too late?

The campaign includes the fact that “opioid dependence can happen after just five days.” For what percentage of the population that tries opioids is this true – 100 percent, 50 percent, 1 percent? Are there other contributing risk factors to the rapid onset of dependence besides ingestion of the opioid itself?

Did certified prevention professionals contribute their expertise and experience to the development of the national campaign? Were Rhode Island certified prevention professionals consulted for input prior to the decision to roll out the campaign, or were they merely given an early presentation of the product?

Does the use of actors to re-create extremely atypical behaviors such as hand smashing damage the credibility of the message? Were the message-makers aware that it is atypical and extreme behavior? Was it intentional exaggeration for effect?

Were any outcomes of the 1980s “This is your Brain on Drugs” campaign examined? Was that campaign effective? How are these campaign videos different from the eggs in the frying pan?

The question that ConvergenceRI believes needs to asked is this: What are the best places to have these kinds of conversations in public to address these concerns? The brief 10-15 minute of public comment at the end of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention seems to give short shrift to the dynamics of the conversation.

Addressing stigma
The first of two Reports to the Community on “Stigma” has put been put together by RICARES and posted. As the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention prepares to draft a new strategic plan, the content of the first report on stigma provides a potential framework for integration into the forthcoming strategy.

Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the R.I. Department of Health, in a video talking about ways that communities are developing their own plans to respond what she termed “an us” public health crisis – the opioid epidemic in Rhode Island, invoked the phrase: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is connectedness.”

Most recently, it was an observation by recovery community advocate Jonathan Goyer on Jan. 26, 2018, during a roundtable at the Anchor Recovery Community Center organized by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse as part of a visit by the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, and featured in the headline in the ConvergenceRI story covering the event. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

Its origin comes from a 2015 TED talk by Johann Harri, author of Chasing The Scream, when he said: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

As the adage goes: bad poets borrow; good poets steal. In any case, it reflects a positive reframe of thinking about the messaging around the success of what works in tackling the opioid epidemic, about the power of engaged communities and relationships.

New research from Shannon Monnat
New research by Shannon Monnat and Khary K. Rigg has been published by Carsey Research at the University of New Hampshire, “The Opioid Crisis in Rural and Small Town America,” building upon her previous research on the diseases of despair, connecting the mortality rates for alcohol, suicide and drugs with economic upheaval and the breakdown of family structures. [See link to research paper below.]

The latest research by Monnat and her colleague Rigg serves as a reminder that Rhode Island has yet to incorporate a broader strategy looking at the drug overdose crisis as symptomatic of something larger happening.


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