Although recovery supports for youth and young adults generally have lagged in comparison to those for such services for adults, the Wheeler Clinic’s Connecticut Center for Prevention, Wellness, and Recovery in Plainville, Connecticut, is making strides toward closing that gap.
Two employees from the center will discuss their experiences at the upcoming virtual National Conference on Addiction Disorders.
Judith Stonger, MA, CPS, the center’s vice president of prevention, wellness and recovery, directs several programs, including the Connecticut Recovery Oriented Support System for Youth (CROSS) initiative and the Connecticut Opioid Misuses Prevention (COMP) project. Shayn Ember, PhD, is the center’s statewide youth recovery support coordinator. Ember coordinates the CROSS initiative, which provides mini grants to local agencies and community organizations to start SMART Recovery meetings for teens and young adults, SMART Family & Friends meetings for caregivers, and Alternative Peer Groups.
Stonger and Ember will present a session on establishing and maintaining a successful youth and young adult recovery support network. Ahead of the conference, the duo spoke with Addiction Professional about why recovery supports for young people have lagged behind those for adults, special considerations for building a recovery network for younger populations, and how they have adjusted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why have youth and young adult recovery supports traditionally lagged behind these services for adults?
Stonger: Youth and young adults have not always felt as comfortable as adults in some of the mutual support groups available.
Ember: Absolutely. For example, a lot of young people don’t feel comfortable going to a meeting where everybody there is 20 or 30 years older than them. Creating a space with their peers that is still facilitated by adults seems to work well, as well as the Alternative Peer Group piece. Even more than adults, teens have social needs when they are entering recovery. They can’t hang out with friends who are still using, but they also might not be accepted by peers who have never used substances. The Alternative Peer Group piece is a big component for them to have friends who are supportive of their recovery and also accepting of where they’ve been before.
Are there other special considerations that should be applied when building a recovery network specifically for young people?
Stonger: From the beginning, we felt very strongly about having youth involvement in the entire process. In a meaningful way, we wanted to involve youth in recovery. Finding out what will be meaningful to youth, what they want to do in terms of Alternative Peer Groups, where they feel like they would like to meet…all of these details of our initiative were led by young people.
Ember: It's not like youth are a monolith, but in general, one of the reason SMART Recovery groups were picked as the type of care support group was because they allow cross talk, and in fact, it’s encouraged. That means the teenagers and young adults are helping each other learn the tools and apply them to their problems, whether it’s substance use specifically or other issues that affect their recovery. Taking a more youth-friendly approach where even the structure of the meeting is designed more from how young people prefer to interact. That reduces barriers. They don’t have to come in and behave in a way they don’t want to behave. They’re able to feel comfortable.
Has COVID-19 impacted the work you’ve been doing on this front in any way?
Ember: All of the groups have moved online because of COVID-19. Even the Alternative Peer Groups have moved online. It has been interesting seeing the creativity of the different network members and from the teenagers and young adults. SMART Recovery meetings work really well online, it turns out. Some sites are considering continuing to meet online. At least for some people, it reduces barriers. The Alternative Peer Groups have done some creative things like contests and games so they still have that peer social support without being able to meet in person.
Stonger: The virtual environment is very comfortable for youth. In some cases, throughout our agency we are finding that engagement and retention is improved with certain populations, including youth, where they don’t have to worry about a ride and they can feel more free. They are more comfortable with technology. We’re all very pleasantly surprised by how well the peer support network has been able to continue the youth recovery support network. … SMART Recovery had online options before the pandemic, so it may be new to some of the groups, but the concept of online SMART Recovery groups is not new. I could see moving forward the virtual environment being more prevalent.