Every race, gender and culture must be welcome in treatment | Addiction Professional Magazine Skip to content Skip to navigation

Every race, gender and culture must be welcome in treatment

February 23, 2018
by Nicole Stempak
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Mark Sanders

Mark Sanders, LCSW, CADC, is focused on patients’ recovery after they leave treatment facilities. For the last five years, he’s been helping to build recovery cultures. The idea is simple: Train people established in recovery to offer support in the very community where the clients are returning.

The movement requires providers and professionals to have an understanding of the neighborhoods and communities where clients live and work. “We want to know what resources exist within that community to support recovery,” Sanders says.

All too often, memories can trigger patients who may not have thought about using while in treatment. People, places and things can trigger cravings once they return home. It’s a problem Sanders has seen repeatedly during his 35 years as a certified addictions counselor. A consultant in behavioral health, he also has taught for more than 30 years at the university level and has authored five books. Sanders is co-founder of Serenity Academy of Chicago, the only recovery high school in Illinois, and past president of the board of the Illinois Chapter of NAADAC.

His most recent project has been the development of the Online Museum of African Americans Addiction, Treatment and Recovery, a resource geared toward frontline workers who want to work more effectively with African American clients. Addiction Professional recently caught up with Sanders to talk about treatment and recovery in the African American community.


AP: Can you describe the prevalence of addiction among African American communities?

Sanders: If we were to pay attention to media accounts, we might believe that addiction is more prevalent in the African American community.  And yet, when you look at SAMHSA’s annual statistics on drug use by race and by gender, African Americans consistently rank third or fourth on the list in terms of actual use. For middle class African Americans and those in the higher socioeconomic brackets, we can expect to see a recovery rate as high as their white counterparts in the same socioeconomic brackets. The more recovery capital you have, the greater your chances of recovery. The challenge is where race and poverty comes together.

The greater challenge is they are more likely to be arrested for possession of substances and thus more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system. There’s evidence that receiving a felony has longer-term consequences than actual addiction. You can always recover. That drug-related felony arrest will follow you for a long time.


AP: What are some of the reasons behind addiction and disparity among African Americans?

Sanders: At the core of addiction among African Americans is some type of trauma, which is consistent with other groups. Among those who are economically disadvantaged or economically poor, trauma can also be connected to joblessness. What executive directors at for-profit treatment centers need to know is they may work with African Americans in corporate America, who might be dealing with trauma but also organizational stress, racism in the workplace, etc.


AP: How do you see that stress and trauma affecting African Americans’ mental health, recovery and treatment abilities?

Sanders: African Americans have experienced oppression for several hundred years in America beginning with slavery, Jim Crow laws, discrimination and high disparity in detention centers. One of the reasons they’re not No. 1 in terms of drug use is the protective factor. There are many factors that actually protect African Americans from mental illness and substance abuse, and it includes things like spirituality, the sense of ‘we’-ness, extended family orientation where you have a great deal of community support, the ability to utilize humor and dance and movement to help mitigate stress.


AP: Is there a danger in providers being colorblind?

Sanders: Everywhere we go as human beings, we bring our experiences with us. African American clients will then bring with them to treatments their experiences of being African American, and then you view the world through their lens. Some African Americans say, ‘If you don’t see color, you don’t see me because my race, my culture, my ethnicity has a way of shaping who I am. So therefore, if you say you don’t see color, literally, I don’t feel like you see me.’

The other thing is, if we don’t see color, we also may not have the opportunity to examine our own biases. We’re not really thinking about that if we don’t see color. Lately in the diversity literature, they’ve been talking about microaggressions, intentional and unintentional slights. It’s insulting people without even knowing we’re insulting them. We have to pay attention to these things so we don’t injure someone inadvertently.


AP: If providers don’t acknowledge race, are they ignoring experiences or situations?

Sanders: By not seeing race, there might be some other things programs may not see. If you’re an African American and you walk into a treatment facility, the first thing you may find yourself instinctively doing is looking at the artwork, similar to the way you would if you were in someone else’s house or a museum. And the first thing you might ask is, ‘Do I see images of myself in the artwork?’ Because sometimes the pictures on the wall at the treatment center can send a signal of who is welcome and who’s not welcome in that space.


The Summits for Clinical Excellence bring together thought leaders on cutting-edge topics in multi-day national and regional conferences. Summits on mindfulness, trauma, process addiction, and shame appeal particularly to private practice behavioral healthcare professionals. Other Summits address the national opioid crisis from a regional perspective and engage a diverse group of stakeholders.

March 7-8, 2018 Chicago - The Opioid Crisis: Strategies for Treatment and Recovery