Support counselors can keep addicts in recovery and out of prison

Heroin user Robert Johnson is reflected in a mirror inside the tent at the pop-up safe injection site at Moss Park in Toronto, Canada.

I recently had the opportunity to train an extraordinary group of individuals to be community health workers.  They were former addicts in recovery, who were also receiving training to be certified recovery specialists for those still addicted.  Many of them had been incarcerated and were also trained as forensic peer specialists to help fellow prisoners about to be released.  Most of my students had previously been homeless and many now lived in shelters and were on welfare. I spent seven weeks with them and got to know them very well.  After graduation, almost all of them had job offers.

Addiction is a terrible illness. It is often a multigenerational problem. Several of my students had started on opioids after a medical or surgical illness. Once hooked, they bought drugs on the street and did whatever they had to do to support their habit. This often involved selling drugs, committing petty crimes and often selling their bodies. Many had been arrested. Once released from prison, many had lost ties with their families, had no marketable skills, had moved to shelters, and often went back to the streets.

Trained ex-addicts in recovery make wonderful peer counsellors. They can help addicts  move toward recovery. They can also help addicts avoid diseases such as hepatitis and AIDS.

For individuals about to be released from prison, this counselling would be even more effective, if they were assigned to a peer counsellor (forensic peer specialist) prior to release, who could help them deal with social determinants of health, such as housing, diet and employment. When inmates are released from prison, they are given a token and their box of belongings and then left on their own. This certainly contributes to the high rate of recidivism. Support systems prior to release could make a huge difference.

My students are decent people who deserve a second chance. They are eager to hold jobs, pay taxes, hold their heads high and get off welfare.

If we can help people get into recovery, stay out of prison and get jobs, we can greatly increase the chance that they will become contributing members of society. They will also be less of burden on emergency departments and less likely to be homeless.

Investment in recovery peer specialists, community health workers and forensic support specialists pays for itself. All of us, not just the former addicts, benefit.