Helping people in recovery

By Jacqueline Pitts

Kentucky Chamber of Commerce

Kentuckians who are in recovery from substance-use disorder, and people who are trying to help them, talked about their efforts Tuesday at an annual conference designed to encourage employers to help.

Employment, assistance, wrap-around services and trainings were just some of the items discussed at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s third annual Recovery Conference in Lexington.

Ashley McCarty, the Chamber’s Workforce Recovery director, spoke about her own personal struggles with substance-use disorder and how she is now using her experience to help Kentucky companies fix their outdated personnel policies to allow for a fair chance and notice early warning signs.

McCarty, who is seven years in active recovery from opioid addiction, said she was among the top five pharmaceutical sales representatives in the country when she had a few surgeries for which she was prescribed opioids for pain. Everything began to fall apart as she developed a dependency on those medications, her performance plummeted, and she even attempted suicide.

Recovery, McCarty said, taught her she could change by being open and transparent, working to build others up, and working on herself and her own struggles.

Krystal Grimes, a line cook at Keeneland, is four years into her active recovery and shared her powerful story with the conference.

Grimes said that to understand her addiction, it is important to understand her childhood and the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of family members at a very young age. She was turned away by adults like school counselors, and abusers told her it was her fault. She then tried to take her own life. When she woke up, her first feeling was sadness that the attempt had not worked, and while the abuse stopped at that point, her feelings did not, and she sought out ways to numb the pain.

As she got older, she married a man who also struggled with addiction and they had three children. She was prescribed an opioid after each Caesarean section that made her feel like “Super Mom,” and her tolerance grew. After many years of struggles, Krystal and her husband lost their children and their home and she thought she didn’t think she had anything else to lose. Then she found heroin, and things continued to get worse as she attempted to stop the pain.

Eventually, she started treatment with Suboxone and eventually began attending classes, where she met McCarty, who inspired her to use the medication correctly and start doing the work of recovery.

With Keeneland since 2014, Grimes said the company has seen her struggle, but continues to believe in her and provide stability, support, and much more which she said has been critical to her recovery.

Jason Roop, director of the Technology Training Center at Campbellsville University, presented research showing that people with substance-use disorder are often goal-oriented, resilient, adaptable, and persistent. He studied characteristics of those in leadership roles who have struggled with addiction and found transformational, authentic leaders are making a powerful difference in the business community and many other sectors.

How employers can help employees

Isaiah House Treatment Centers President Mike Cox shared their goals for effective treatment, including meaningful employment. Cox said when a business gives an individual in recovery a second chance, a sense of loyalty is automatically created. Isaiah House has partnerships with multiple businesses willing to employ individuals in active recovery.

Ed Early of Isaiah House discussed the critical role of the employer in the recovery process. It begins with reducing stigma in the workplace, he said. Employers should treat those in recovery in the same manner as other staff members: be welcoming, provide education and training, understand how to reward and hold employees accountable, and know when to retain, terminate and advance employees.

“It’s all about the opportunities they are given and the support they are shown,” said Early.

Landmark Recovery National Business Development Manager Zachary Crouch talked about why individuals don’t seek help from employers: “The real reason is stigma.” Crouch said the cost of not treating substance use and mental health is too expensive not to address, since each replacement of an employee costs them six to nine months’ salary. He encouraged businesses to seek ways to engage employees when they are struggling with substance abuse and mental health and to encourage vulnerability, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Representatives of Goodwill Industries of Kentucky, which has developed second-chance policies through removing barriers to employment for individuals in recovery and/or leaving incarceration, talked about new efforts to help individuals overcome re-entry and recovery challenges. One project is a program in which participants can learn soft skills, financial literacy, digital literacy, communications skills, resume writing, mock interviews to address criminal history and gaps in resumes, health and nutrition, and much more.

HEALing Communities Study, other efforts

Dr. Sharon Walsh of the University of Kentucky reported on the HEALing (Helping End Addiction Long Term) Communities Study, a four-year, $87 million effort, funded by the largest federal grant UK ever received, to reduce opioid overdose deaths in 16 Kentucky counties.

Walsh said many “silos” separate medical care, behavioral health and recovery housing, which can make it difficult for people to find what they need. To address this, the study is evaluating the impact of various interventions, including education and distribution of naloxone; effective delivery of medication for substance use disorder; and safer opioid prescribing and distribution.

Walsh pointed to the rise of illicit fentanyl from China in U.S. markets as a reason that naloxone training and distribution, and a focus on medically-assisted treatment for substance-use disorder, remain critical to helping Kentuckians reach recovery.

RECON Kentucky, a consortium for recovery in Kentucky, announced its first inductees into the Kentucky Recovery Hall of Fame. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset and Jay Davidson, founder of The Healing Place, were honored for their work to solve the state’s struggles with substance-use disorder.

Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, stressed that Kentucky’s struggle with substance-use disorder must be addressed at the community, person-to-person level. He highlighted areas of success the state has seen in recent years including his office’s partnership with the Chamber’s Workforce Recovery initiative, which is training more than 5,000 Kentucky business leaders on the importance of being a recovery-friendly workplace.

While Kentucky is doing many things right, Ingram said, there is bad news as well. His office will soon release a report showing a 40 percent increase in overdose deaths, much of which can be attributed to a rise in the use of fentanyl. To get Kentucky back on track, Ingram said Kentucky must re-evaluate all efforts to ensure the state is saving as many lives as possible.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said efforts the federal level to combat substance-use disorder have broad, bipartisan support in Congress. He emphasized the importance of people getting back to work, especially those struggling with substance use disorder, and said the continuation of additional unemployment benefits is an obstacle to that.