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Recovery support for the Facebook generation

September 1, 2009
by David Raths
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Shari Corbitt, PhD, executive director of TouchStone Treatment Center in Agoura Hills, California, has seen how social networking technology has started to play a role in the lives of people in recovery-especially among younger clients. “Many of our clients are on Facebook,” says Corbitt, adding that the Los Angeles area has an active recovery network of young people interacting online.

“I had one client say he had a feeling he was going to relapse, but because all his friends were following him on Twitter he didn't want to let any of them down,” she adds.

Social networking sites hold the potential to create spaces for members to share stories, work on recovery programs and support one another. Now TouchStone, which has been open for more than a year and provides treatment for adults with chemical dependency and dual diagnoses, is making social networking tools part of its regular follow-up process with clients once they leave treatment. A California-based startup company called OneRecovery (http://www.onerecovery.com) has worked to develop online alumni networks for TouchStone and other treatment centers.

“They helped us develop an alumni association overnight,” says Corbitt, whose facility as of late July already had an alumni network of about 25.

“These [recovering] people want to make changes, so we've given them tools and features to help them,” says David Metzler, a former venture capitalist and investment banker and now CEO of OneRecovery. “And research shows people have better success keeping to goals when they share them.”

When clients log in to TouchStone's OneRecovery site, the first thing they do is click on emoticon choices to share how they are feeling at the moment. “If they click ‘craving,’ my admin gets a text message instantly,” Corbitt says. “One of his key responsibilities is to respond to requests or questions in OneRecovery, so that no Touchstone alumnus ever goes more than 24 hours without hearing back from us.”

Every TouchStone client is registered for OneRecovery two weeks prior to discharge. “We have already had re-admissions from people in the alumni network who were struggling,” Corbitt notes, “and the outreach effort of OneRecovery led them back to us for more help.”

‘A Facebook about recovery’

OneRecovery isn't the only organization that has noticed that social networking tools lend themselves to people in recovery. The Second Road (http://www.thesecondroad.org), based in Virginia, is an online community for people recovering from addiction. Members create their own profile pages, and the site includes blogs, chat groups and videos.

A site launched last October called In The Rooms (http://www.intherooms.com) has already attracted 40,000 members. Co-founder Ken Pomerance got the idea when someone in the Flickr online community for photographers mentioned a child struggling with addiction, and wondered if her life was ruined. “I chimed in and said I had been in recovery for many years and was doing fine,” Pomerance recalls. “My inbox was flooded with responses from other people, not about photography but about recovery.”

He and co-founder Ron Tannebaum decided at that point to try to create “a Facebook about recovery,” as Pomerance calls it.

He thinks one of the reasons online social networking makes sense for people in recovery involves anonymity. “For young people who may have limited social skills and who are not familiar with the idea of attending meetings, this takes some of the fear away, and they can test the waters anonymously,” Pomerance says. Online sites also can help people who have trouble getting to meetings, such as residents of rural communities or a new mother at home with her baby.

As is the case with many social networking sites focusing on recovery, In The Rooms participants are able to control the degree to which they are open about details of their lives. Members complete an online personal profile that can be as detailed or bare-bones as they wish.

Tannebaum says In The Rooms seeks to transcend the boundaries of 12-Step groups while maintaining their integrity. “We have 14 fellowship groups and are adding 3 more,” he says. “If you joined one of those traditional groups, you'd never get the chance to meet people in the other 13. This online community gives you that opportunity.”

Bringing in the providers

OneRecovery's Metzler notes that there are a number of online social networks that apply to recovery, “but we are trying to take it a step further by tying it directly into treatment centers.”

He sees the technology as offering a new informational source in aftercare to help clinicians determine more effectively who is at risk for relapse. Metzler notes that clinicians can quickly check progress on a person's stated goals. “They can have that visibility at their fingertips that they never had before,” he says.

By the end of the year, OneRecovery plans to have 15 treatment centers signed up and using the system. The annual license fee to treatment centers is tiered based on a facility's number of treatment beds and monthly intensive outpatient programs. OneRecovery says the average monthly cost per bed for a center amounts to less than $100.

Treatment centers are interested in licensing OneRecovery, Metzler says, because:

  • It will make them more efficient in managing their networks of alumni;

  • It could give them more data about patients after they have left treatment; and

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