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When a priest or religious completes residential treatment and prepares to leave Saint Luke Institute, colleagues, friends, and family can have the temptation to think that person’s work is “done.”
That is, they may believe the client is healed, the challenges that brought the individual to treatment are fully resolved, and these issues will not return in the future. They may assume treatment has “fixed” the person’s problems.
These assumptions are inaccurate for two reasons. The first is the recovery process is not a linear one with a goal to be reached. Rather it involves simple, daily decisions that will continue to lead a person toward or away from health.
Second, leaving treatment and living life differently can be daunting. The person embarking on this process needs assistance to implement what he or she learned in residential therapy. That is where the support team comes in.
Before a client leaves treatment, the Continuing Care team at Saint Luke asks that individual to think about people back home who can walk closely with them to support their ongoing recovery. These people will serve as the person’s “support team.”
The support team will periodically meet over the next five years. Its members help the client implement their Continuing Care contract. This document outlines the activities necessary for recovery (twelve-step groups, therapy, etc.), along with a list of triggers for relapse (e.g., missing twelve-step meetings, detaching from their community, etc.), and how to respond to those triggers.
That is why Continuing Care staff members visit the client and his or her support team back home to train the team members in their role.
A support person is usually a peer, former parishioner, or community member. It is typically encouraged that the support team has a mix of genders, lay people, and clergy or religious to provide a variety of perspectives.
A support person’s role is to serve as a mirror to the client, to give feedback to the client about the achievements they notice in recovery, and to challenge the client when he or she is not following the recovery plan in a consistent way.
The team meets every four to eight weeks, and each member speaks with the client in between meetings, both to see how they are doing and to provide one-on-one support.
Most important are the core characteristics of a support person, namely honesty, availability, and care. An effective support person can share the successes and challenges surrounding the client’s recovery, express concern, and consistently be present and open for advice.
Oftentimes a support person will feel anxious about their role:
Usually, such concerns are allayed during the “reentry workshop,” where a Continuing Care therapist trains team members in their role. Their concerns are also resolved as they learn through experience how to most effectively give feedback.
A support person is not a therapist. A support person is not an individual who has engaged in the problematic behavior the client is working to overcome (e.g., an old drinking buddy, an overly negative community member, etc.).
It is important for a support person to know they are not being asked to “fix” a client or to prevent a relapse. Recovery is the responsibility of the client, not the support team. It is up to the client to make use of this resource. A support person should avoid playing the role of supervisor or probation officer.
Finally, a client needs to feel safe and not afraid of being judged by their support team. This means support team members will not criticize or punish a client if he or she struggles.
Instead, they will listen objectively and point the client back to their resources: the contract, the therapist, and the skills they learned in treatment.
A support person commits to be a part of the support team for five years. While this may seem prolonged, research shows that if an individual is able to sustain healthy recovery for at least five years after treatment, the likelihood of relapse decreases (Prochaska and Velicer, 1997).1 As time passes, the group may not need to meet as frequently.
Each support person also writes twice a year to the client’s Continuing Care therapist. These letters describe their impression of the client’s growth. The client sees them when they attend Continuing Care workshops at Saint Luke.
The team member’s perception of a client’s progress is extremely valuable to the recovery process. The support person is encouraged to be as candid as possible with the client. That is why the client sees these letters when they attend a workshop. If a support person is not sure how to offer feedback, they can always call the Continuing Care staff for advice.
While a client may find it difficult to believe at the time, most individuals feel honored to serve on a support team. They recognize the vital, even sacred role they play as someone who is closely connected to a person in recovery.
Saint Luke Institute staff members especially appreciate the role support persons play, as they help the client continue the good work they began while in residential care.
<sup>1</sup> Prochaska, JO, Velicer, WF (1997). “The Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavior Change,” AJHP, 12(1):38-4.
Kimberly D’Alterio, M.A., LCPC, is a member of the continuing care team at Saint Luke Institute.
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