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When Katie Smith, 29, of Lincoln started her recovery from opioid addiction more than four years ago, she needed more help than doctors and counselors could offer.
Over many months she had to figure out the path to recovery that worked for her — without someone to lean on.
But now Smith, who volunteers at Bangor Area Recovery Network and will soon undergo training to become a peer recovery coach, is working to help others so they don’t have to do it alone.
“Now I can come in here and help someone day one of their recovery,” she said. “It makes me feel good, because I wish I would’ve had that opportunity and help.”
The recovery coach model that the Bangor Area Recovery Network and a number of other organizations around the state employ to help people trying to overcome opioid addiction is getting increased attention. Gov. Janet Mills has made assembling a network of 250 trained recovery coaches part of her initial strategy to combat the opioid addiction crisis in the state. And Mills gave the organization’s recovery coaches in particular a very public shoutout recently.
In her State of the Budget address on Feb. 11, Mills commended Robert Fickett and Sharon Fields from the Bangor Area Recovery Network for coordinating recovery coaching and volunteering programs while being in recovery themselves. The organization had begun piloting the recovery coach model four years ago.
“They are success stories,” Mills said in her speech. “They are giving back to their community. They are helping others and saving lives.”
Mills this month signed an executive order directing $1.6 million in existing state and federal funds to combat the opioid crisis. Part of that — the executive order doesn’t specify an amount — will go to train 250 recovery coaches across the state, and assign them to 10 emergency rooms.
Fickett, 39, has been training recovery coaches for more than three years.
His network currently has 22 recovery coaches who offer peer support to people going through addiction and recovery. The network piloted its peer recovery coaching with the Penobscot County Jail to help inmates develop a plan to avoid relapse once they were released.
In 2016, the recovery network, along with the Bangor public health department, received a grant from the Maine Health Access Foundation for the recovery coach program. Fickett has a team of five people who train new recruits twice a year, and he conducts monthly meetings to educate and help coaches.
Through the training, recovery network coaches learn how to manage their own recovery process to be a reliable source of help to the participants. They also learn to identify their participants’ stages of recovery, how to actively listen and translate that to productive help, and eventually how to help participants empower themselves to continue the recovery process.
The coaches are not the medical professionals charged with providing addiction treatment.
“It’s not a standalone or a one-stop shop,” Fickett said. “Recovery coaches work best as connectors in a continuum of care.”
Fickett believes that everyone’s path to recovery is different, and that can include a combination of doctors, counselors and programs. The recovery coaches he trains offer support and resources to help the participant choose what works best for them.
A 2015 review of studies published in the Journal of Substance Abuse treatment found statistically significant evidence that peer recovery coaches are effective in helping people in addressing their addictions.
Fickett is hopeful about the increasing support for recovery coaches in Maine. In his almost four years of being a coach, he has helped people with different types of obstacles they might encounter, such as food insecurity, transportation issues or applying for Section 8 housing.
“Gov. Mills does not have all the answers but she’s not afraid to surround herself with people who have some answers,” Fickett said. “I feel that there’s some hope in what she and her administration are doing about recovery. She seems committed to solutions and not just talking about it.”