Comprehensive treatment program helping opiate users achieve recovery

*This story first appeared in The Budget’s May 16, 2018, Local Edition.

By Stacey Carmany
The Budget

A comprehensive recovery program being offered by Community Mental Healthcare is helping individuals struggling with opiate addiction achieve lasting sobriety by combining individual and group counseling with medication-assisted therapies.

Established in 2012, the BRIDGES recovery program (an acronym for building recovery insight, demonstrating growth, empowering sobriety) is an intensive outpatient program designed to help individuals break free of the chains of addiction and restore their lives while taking medication to reduce their cravings and prevent withdrawal symptoms.

“We just really wanted to see something in the community where it wasn’t just giving somebody medication, and they’re on their way and hopefully they make it,” said Christa Hatfield-Lewis, a licensed professional clinical counselor who helped start and later revamp the program at a time when the only medication option available was a drug called Suboxone that required long-term, daily use.

In the spring of 2016, the program began to offer a second medication option, a drug called Vivitrol that blocks the effects of opioids and is administered as a 28-day injection. “It has a much higher success rate with being able to override medication with other drugs,” Hatfield-Lewis explained. “With Vivitrol, we say you’ll pretty much die before you get high, so don’t try it. You can’t use opiates on Vivitrol and get high. It’s impossible.”

Another advantage of Vivitrol, according to the counselor, is that it’s also easier for patients to get off of. “It’s 18 months for the Vivitrol, and it takes 27 to 30 months to get off Suboxone,” she explained. “It’s a very long-term program.”

While both medications continue to be offered, Hatfield-Lewis shared that the program has seen a big boost from the Vivitrol. “We’re actually seeing some people that have been on Suboxone say, ‘I want to get off Suboxone, and I want to do Vivitrol,’ ” she shared. “Other people still want Suboxone, which is fine too. That’s why we offer both.”

Before either drug is made available, however, individuals must demonstrate their commitment to the recovery process. “There are some things they need to do as an individual, and they need to be active in the recovery process,” said Miles Riley, director of marketing and compliance for CMH. “They don’t just show up and get the shot.”

This is done by attending one-on-one counseling sessions to address the underlying causes of the addiction and group sessions to help individuals develop strategies and skills for achieving lasting sobriety.

“Group counseling looks at what’s the reason you got high in the first place, teaching them coping skills, accountability and how to apply for jobs and how to work the steps to get their children back,” Hatfield-Lewis shared.

“That’s what we really push for. It’s like you want your life before drugs,” Hatfield-Lewis said. “If we can show you that you can get that back by being sober, you’re much more likely to stick with it than to return to your old habits.”

She noted that individuals are also required to continue to take part in a certain number of sessions per week in order to remain in the program.

Before beginning the program, patients are required to undergo an assessment at the CMH Crisis Center to determine where they stand in the recovery process. “We try to determine how long they’ve been sober if they have been sober. Then, obviously, we want to help them and support them the best way we can,” Riley explained.

Patients are also seen by CMH’s Family Health Center to address any underlying medical issues. “We want to make sure they’re really healthy and check their liver enzymes and their kidney function and all of that and see if they have Hepatitis,” Hatfield-Lewis shared. “We don’t want you to go through all this treatment, and then you still have something that’s going to kill you in 10 years.”

The entire program takes 12 to 18 months to complete if the patient goes on Vivitrol, or several years for those taking Suboxone.

While it can be difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the program, especially with Vivitrol because it has been offered for such a short amount of time, Hatfield-Lewis shared that a number of individuals have been able to successfully complete the program and remain sober. “We’ve had two young ladies that have done the whole program and been off for more than six months, and they have not relapsed at all,” she shared. “There’s been other people that have been on the Vivitrol, and they’re doing well, but they didn’t do the whole program. They either moved or decided they didn’t want to take it anymore after a year.”

Among those who have completed the program is Wendi Elifritz, who says the program did more than just change her life: It gave her a better one.

“Throughout the last couple of years the staff has been very helpful and understanding,” said Elifritz, who spent 15 years in addiction and tried to get sober several times on her own before deciding to enroll in the BRIDGES program. “They helped a hopeless girl become a positive woman that looks forward to the future.”

Elifritz expressed her gratitude to Hatfield-Lewis, who served as her counselor, and CMH Medical Director Carmel Shaw, who, together with God, helped her change her path and her mind.

“I would recommend this program to anyone who feels that they need a change, even if they think it’s impossible,” she shared. “I believed it was impossible but I was tired enough that I was willing to follow directions just to see how it worked out. I’ve been clean and sober since October 9, 2015. Life could not be better.”

The BRIDGES recovery program is currently offered only at CMH’s location in Dover. Transportation assistance is available by request.

Because the cost of monthly Vivitrol injections is not covered by most private health insurance plans, the drug is currently available only to those on Medicaid.

In addition to the BRIDGES program, which is designed exclusively for opioid addiction, CMH also offers programs to help individuals overcome other substance abuse issues.

For more info, call 330-343-6631.