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Consider learning opportunities with colleagues abroad

August 28, 2015
by Aaron Brett
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Stanley Street Treatment & Resources, Inc. (SSTAR) has been involved in efforts with an international focus since 2000, when CEO Nancy Paull was asked by the American International Health Alliance and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to visit the former Soviet republic of Georgia to help train doctors on addiction treatment and prevention. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation heard about SSTAR’s work and put forward its name to the United Nations (UN), which was looking for organizations interested in helping under-resourced countries develop drug treatment. SSTAR was chosen to be one of 20 agencies in the world to form the UN’s Treatnet Project.

From there, SSTAR was asked to conduct several trainings in Russia with non-governmental organizations. One of those organizations, the Health and Development Foundation, came to SSTAR asking if it would form a joint project designed to use mobile applications and text messaging to reach out to high-risk substance-using women. Health and Development and SSTAR jointly applied to the nonprofit Eurasia Foundation to finance a look at how a mobile app could be developed. A series of meetings ensued both at SSTAR in Fall River, Mass., and in Moscow and St Petersburg. Paull believed it was important to include direct-care staff who had been implementing the University of Wisconsin’s A-CHESS mobile application with SSTAR clients in early recovery, to offer some real-world experience.

In June 2014, a team from SSTAR traveled to St. Petersburg to work with the Health and Development Foundation from Moscow. As a staff member who had been working on a SSTAR project using mobile app support for clients at high risk of relapsing upon release from a detoxification program, I was afforded the opportunity to be a member of the team representing SSTAR. The prospect of traveling to Russia and learning about a foreign culture while working with Russian colleagues was rivaled only by the actual experience. The “linkage project” was a collaborative learning experience between two nonprofit organizations from Russia and the United States.

The exchange with our colleagues in Russia was of great benefit to my work here at SSTAR. Touring a number of clinics in St. Petersburg provided us with significant insight into some of the different treatment approaches utilized in Russia. I was able to bring home what I learned and apply it to my program here at SSTAR. Because I am the supervisor of the Community Support Program at SSTAR, the concentration on community-based treatment methods was especially intriguing to me. Our guide in one clinic told us that the patients were out playing soccer with another agency, a match that is very much looked forward to around the area. Another guide stated that trips to the theatre or the many local museums are generally used as a welcomed respite from everyday activity.

The nature of Community Support found all across Massachusetts allows flexibility and the ability to adopt some of what I learned from the clinics in St. Petersburg. Since our visit, our program has more strongly prioritized reintegration into the community—a community that many of our clients have never been a part of. It is important for our clients to learn that they can have fun in recovery, that they know there is a whole world full of wonderful, interesting things out there to discover. Although we cannot physically take our clients to museums or to the theatre, we have begun to concentrate on letting them know that these attractions exist. Many are completely unfamiliar with the culture and history to be discovered right in our own back yard. Our clients are encouraged to discover and pursue hobbies that, if not for our program, they might never have been exposed to.

International projects such as the venture I was so fortunate to take part in are invaluable to the providers, clients and citizens of each country. Clearly, we do not have all of the answers here in the U.S., and I am confident that no other country is perfect in treating addiction either. The truth is that certain countries excel in certain aspects of treatment. The opportunity to learn from one another is something that should be encouraged in every nation, affecting everyone from a counselor with little experience to the CEO of an organization. Counselors can compare techniques and strategies used in one-on-one treatment. Organizations can compare and contrast policy decisions in order to shape effective treatment. When collaboration takes place, the best course of treatment often ensues. When expertise is shared among providers in different nations, clients of each ultimately reap the benefits.

Use of mobile technology

The exchange has helped launch a new method of addiction treatment at SSTAR using mobile technology. Many of SSTAR’s clients have been fortunate to take part. Using some of what was learned in our exchange with the Health and Development Foundation, SSTAR will continue to focus on the use of technology in addiction treatment.

The Health and Development Foundation had been using mobile text messaging to work with newly pregnant women, in a “Text for Babies” initiative. Working with SSTAR and other partners on the project has enabled Health and Development to move forward to develop a second application for substance-using, high-risk women. It is currently looking for funding to help implement this program with support from St Petersburg’s state-run Narcology Department, the Eurasia Foundation and others.