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2011 Outstanding Clinicians AWARDS

July 15, 2011
by Gary A. Enos
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Addiction Professional is proud to honor its third group of professionals in the annual Outstanding Clinicians Awards competition. Each year, based on nominations submitted by readers, the magazine awards a counselor, a clinical supervisor and a physician who have become innovators in their programs and communities.

This year's honorees, Kristina Gray, Kerry Black and Michael M. Miller, exemplify the many professionals in the field who maintain a focus on high-quality clinical care in the face of numerous professional demands. We will formally honor their efforts in September at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) in San Diego.

Kristina Gray

The therapeutic tools Kristina Gray brings to her work with young offenders under the authority of the South Dakota Department of Corrections carry names such as “Higher Power boxes” and “self-esteem flowers.” These activities might appear light and entertaining on the surface, but they all carry a serious message for young people who are mandated to treatment.

While Gray emphasizes fun as part of the treatment process, she also warns, “Don't mistake my kindness for weakness.” She adds, “If you let [clients] manipulate you, they will.”

Gray has worked as a South Dakota state employee for five years, first with male juveniles mandated to treatment and now with females at a state-run juvenile facility in the southwest corner of the state. “You can touch on different subjects with the girls,” she says. “Also, there is more self-harm and sexual abuse [to consider] in this group.”

Most of the successful interventions Gray has used are delivered in group settings. For the Higher Power boxes, she collects facial tissue and food boxes and has the clients decorate them in a fashion that to them represents their Higher Power. They then make tiny holes in each box, through which they deposit resentments that cannot easily be retrieved from the box.

“It's about making these concepts physical,” says Gray. “It helps them better understand the concept of letting go.”

For the self-esteem flower, an exercise that normally unfolds over three hours, clients write various affirmations (such as positive comments they've heard from others) on paper and create a flower from them. They can lose parts of the flower as natural consequences for not following directions, but then can take actions to win them back, Gray explains.

The colleague who nominated Gray for the award stated in her description of her work, “A majority of Kristina's activities have been stolen by the counselors who are lucky enough to call her a co-worker.”

Gray says she also integrates several cultural aspects into her clinical work, as she uses Native American concepts as part of treatment and also is an avid reader of Buddhist teachings.

Looking forward, she sees herself incorporating more aspects of holistic treatment into her work. She didn't envision herself working with youths from the outset, but clearly enjoys the opportunity to shape young people's recovery.

“Teenagers are a tribe of their own,” Gray says. “I enjoy every moment.”

Position: Chemical dependency counselor

Organization: SD STAR Academy, Custer, S.D.

Age: 33

Quote: “Treatment should be fun and entertaining, just like sobriety can be. Sobriety is not all about wanting to drink all the time and not being able to.”

Comment from a colleague: The person who nominated Gray for the award stated, “Kristina is able to be both warm and firm with her clients, offering them lots of hope and support while still holding them accountable for their choices.”

Kerry Black

Position: Clinical supervisor

Organization: Heartland Family Service, Council Bluffs, Iowa

Age: 33

Quote: “With my staff load, I don't have a direct service requirement, but I want to carry a caseload. If I only did supervision, I'd miss my time with clients.”

Comment from colleague: “Kerry has a positive approach to a very stressful job,” says Heartland behavioral health director Mary O'Neill. “She checks in with other staff routinely to ensure they have appropriate self-care, to ensure well-being of the staff and their clients.”

Kerry Black recalls a longtime fascination with brain science during her education years, so it comes as no surprise to her to be at the forefront of evidence-based practice implementation in the behavioral health service organization where she works.

“I think I have really pushed my colleagues to rely on their knowledge and skill base, and on each other more,” says the clinical supervisor for Heartland Family Service, which has addiction and mental health service operations in both Iowa and Nebraska. “Don't just go with what your beliefs are; look at the data.”

In her own clinical work over the years, Black says she found particular success with implementation of parent/child interaction therapy, where parents learn skills that they can apply to play time as well as to imposing discipline. As a clinical supervisor, she has helped to carry out an organization-wide emphasis on being more trauma-informed in programming.

“We have been challenging therapists who have difficult clients and have tried everything,” Black says. “We have had them look at trauma histories, to see what might have been missed in the past.”