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Healthcare News

A Survivor’s Story

By James Basler


There have been 1 million drug-overdose deaths in this country since 1999. On March 21, 2018, my brother was one of them.

I am very lucky, at age 46, to not be one of them, as I, too, have overdosed, but survived. My paper route, as I tell people about my life’s journey, has not been an easy one, with jail time for aggressive behavior while under the influence, time wasted in denial about my substance use and mental health, and letting judgment of others keep me from seeking treatment.

However, I did seek treatment, finding success with daily medication to maintain recovery, along with the behavioral-health counseling that goes with it, in my mind, like peanut butter and jelly. I now share my story with others, as many of us have lost family members and friends to drug overdose.

I tell anyone with addiction that if I can maintain recovery — despite a long history of misuse, startovers, and decisions that did not focus on what I needed to do — you can do it, too. You can find the right combination of support to start and sustain recovery.

My substance use dates to weekend drinking as a young adult, and my addiction and recovery are, you might say, a timeline for the public-health emergency that substance use and mental health have become during the last two decades.

My journey has included alcohol, the once widely prescribed pain med Oxycontin that flamed the country’s overdose crisis, heroin, Section 35 court-order treatment, stays in residential recovery programs, and hospital admissions on a voluntary basis for psychiatric treatment.

I got married; fathered three children, whom I see regularly; and learned and accepted that my addiction, the most severe form of substance use, may have started as a form of self-medication in response to mental-health issues and exposure to trauma.

“I tell anyone with addiction that if I can maintain recovery — despite a long history of misuse, startovers, and decisions that did not focus on what I needed to do — you can do it, too. You can find the right combination of support to start and sustain recovery.”

I have been clean for the last five years except for one relapse three years into my sobriety. Anyone in recovery will tell you relapse is part of recovery. Your brain misses the pleasurable feelings drug dependency produces, especially when life’s realities sideline how such dependency can ruin your life altogether.

I live in sober housing and work daily to maintain recovery, as no one ever said recovery is easy, despite its rewards. You need to stay connected to your treatment and supports, and not go it alone.

I take methadone at the MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke, and I also do one-one-counseling for my mental health, as well as group sessions. Substance use can contribute to poor mental health, and poor mental health can contribute to substance use. Finding the right medications and getting the right providers in place for both can take time, but are what enable individuals like myself with a substance-use and mental-health diagnosis to lead fulfilling lives in our community and have healthy relationships.

I was oblivious, growing up in Middlesex County during the 1990s, to the dangers and consequences of substance use. I now understand addiction for what it is: a medical condition that needs individualized treatment, and that there is no shame in getting treatment to manage it.

I have survived to 46 thanks to a little luck, as illicit drugs laced with fentanyl, a laboratory-made opioid that is cheap and 100 times more potent than heroin, have become mainly responsible for the majority of overdose deaths at record numbers in this country; much ongoing support from family and friends; and access as well as commitment to medication-assisted recovery like that at MiraVista.

I hope that my story offers hope for recovery to anyone with substance-use and mental-health disorders. Medications can get you into recovery, and the work you do in counseling motivates and helps sustain it.


James Basler was born in Melrose and raised in Burlington. He is a resident of Holyoke, the father of three, and a patient of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center’s Opioid Treatment program. He is in his fifth year of successful, sustained recovery. For more information on MiraVista’s treatment and recovery programs, call (413) 701-2600, option 3, or visit www.miravistabhc.care.

Healthcare News

‘It’s the Right Thing to Do’

State Sen. John Velis and Ramona Rivera-Reno

State Sen. John Velis and Ramona Rivera-Reno say being a Recovery Ready Workplace is good for employees — and the bottom line.


State Sen. John Velis knows something about addiction and recovery, having experienced both in his life. And as chair of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery who also serves on a national mental-health task force, he’s keenly aware of the intertwined challenges of recovery and employment.

That’s why he firmly believes the Recovery Ready Workplace initiative offers businesses a roadmap to not only help employees with the biggest challenges of their lives, but to help their business succeed at the same time.

“If you don’t have a healthy workforce, if you don’t have a workforce that is there, in the here and now, to do their job, you’re going to see that in your productivity — more specifically, loss of productivity,” he said.

So helping employees struggling with mental-health issues, addiction, and other challenges is certainly a bottom-line issue, he went on. But, more importantly, it’s a human issue. “It’s important to do it for many reasons, but most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.”

Velis shared these thoughts at a recent employer-appreciation breakfast presented by MassHire Holyoke’s Pillars of the Community Workforce (PCW) initiative, during which several local businesses were honored for their pledge to become a Recovery Ready Workplace — a national program he believes is more crucial than ever.

“What I know with absolute certainty is that the pain that’s being felt out there right now, the number of people dying, the number of people struggling with their mental health, is unprecedented,” he said, adding that this issue “absolutely transcends age, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, everything. There is pain out there.”

A Recovery Ready Workplace supports its community by recognizing recovery from substance-use disorder as a strength, according to MassHire. Companies that take the pledge actively work to maintain and support the employment of people in recovery and their loved ones, and creates a healthy and safe environment where employers and employees can work together to eliminate barriers for those impacted by addiction, reduce stigma and judgment of people in recovery, and start to shift attitudes and perceptions around these issues.

“What’s our mission? To create a culture of support for employers and employees that have been impacted by substance use and addiction,” said Ramona Rivera-Reno, executive director of MassHire Holyoke’s Re-entry & Recovery program. “And when I say create a culture, I’m talking about breaking down the stigma that goes with substance-use disorder.”

“What I know with absolute certainty is that the pain that’s being felt out there right now, the number of people dying, the number of people struggling with their mental health, is unprecedented.”

Reducing or eliminating that stigma is a critical step, she emphasized.

“We’re all in recovery from something, whether it’s recovering from surgery, recovering from the pandemic, recovering economically. There’s a lot of pressure on all of us. And we need to have the coping skills and the communication skills to overcome that as a community together. And that’s what the Recovery Ready Workplace is all about — educating employers, helping them educate their staff, adding it as a wellness benefit to their benefits. The more people you educate, the more communication you get out there, the more we’ll break down that barrier.”

MassHire Holyoke recently recognized

MassHire Holyoke recently recognized about a dozen local businesses for taking the Recovery Ready Workplace pledge.

MassHire notes that being a Recovery Ready Workplace does not mean accepting or enabling intoxication, substance use, or any unsafe conditions in the workplace. What it does mean is that the business:

• Acknowledges that addiction is an issue for many people by openly addressing the topic of drug and alcohol misuse, communicating about these issues in a non-judgmental and honest way to reduce stigma, and encouraging employees to discuss substance-use concerns and recovery successes in a non-punitive setting;

• Educates employees and customers about the disease of addiction and treatment resources and options;

• Offers policies and accommodations that support employees while rethinking hiring standards around gaps in employment, addiction-related justice history, and other considerations;

• Prioritizes safety by preventing employee exposure to unsafe conditions that could cause injury or illness that contribute to the development or recurrence of substance-use disorders, ensuring the workplace is an emotionally and socially safe and healthy environment for staff, and improving access to recovery supports; and

• Improves access to recovery supports by lowering barriers to seeking and receiving care for addiction, and maintaining recovery.


Making a Difference

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia said the city itself is taking a pledge to be a Recovery Ready Workplace. He recognized why some companies would be hesitant to sign on, but agreed with Velis that it’s the right thing to do.

“Obviously, as a company, you have to make sure you have your systems in place to help navigate potential liability and harm to your company because that’s the bottom line,” Garcia noted. “But these are the folks that are helping you build that. So, whatever little bit you can do to help build people up, you’re going to see a return from those individuals that really appreciate the level of interest you’ve taken on them, and the risk you’ve taken on them.”

Rivera-Reno said companies and organizations that take the pledge agree to acknowledge and openly address the employees’ experience with drug and alcohol misuse in the process of recovery.

“A lot of people suffer from different things, whether it’s substance-use disorder, alcoholism, mental-health issues, and they don’t ask for help because the stigma attached to it. It’s a sign of weakness for a lot of people.”

“You’re free to educate your employees about the disease of addiction and treatment options in recovery support, and offer support. And there’s so many ways you can offer support.”

It can be as simple as offering a dollop of schedule flexibility. She cited one client who used to go to lunchtime recovery meetings, but could no longer do that at a new job. “So we had someone talk to the employer, and the employer decided, ‘well, you can come in early, and you can have a longer lunch and just stay later.’

“That makes a big difference to someone,” she went on. “Something simple like a flex schedule made all the difference. And that person’s still working today, and he wouldn’t have had the courage, I think, to do this if we didn’t have a recovery coach talking with him along the way, and if the employer wasn’t aware of our services and aware of what a recovery-friendly place is.”

Rivera-Reno called stigma a more deadly killer than cigarettes, heroin, or whatever substance because it keeps people in the shadows and keeps them from asking for help. Companies that pledge to help break that stigma, she said, are changing lives.

“A lot of people suffer from different things, whether it’s substance-use disorder, alcoholism, mental-health issues, and they don’t ask for help because the stigma attached to it. It’s a sign of weakness for a lot of people. It’s a sign of, like, maybe you’re not ready to work here. So by getting us into the different employers’ offices, talking about recovery as a community, we really make a difference in their lives.”

Garcia emphasized that, with the cost of turnover and difficulty retaining talent these days, it makes business sense for employers to support their employees who are struggling with some of these issues, rather than letting them fall through the cracks.

“Sometimes it’s not even the individual that’s suffering from personal addiction; it’s a son or a daughter or a significant other that impacts them and their performance in the workplace,” the mayor said. “So we’re taking a much more proactive approach when dealing with our employees to help them navigate these problems so that we keep our employees and don’t lose them.”

Indeed, MassHire emphasizes the bottom-line benefits of cultivating a Recovery Ready Workplace, including increased retention and fewer absences, a healthier and safer work environment, greater productivity and loyalty among staff, lower healthcare costs, and an enhanced reputation as a supportive, yet accountable organization.

And with 22 million Americans identifying themselves as people in recovery, it’s not something businesses can afford to ignore.

“You already have countless employees who are struggling with something, whether it be a substance-use disorder or something else,” Velis told those attending the breakfast. “You have that without knowing it.”


Breaking the Cycle

Velis ended his address on a personal note, and an encouragement to practice self-care. He said he was late to the event because he was bringing his son to daycare.

“Probably two or three years ago, I would have said to my better half, ‘I gotta go. I gotta be at work. I’m speaking at this event.’ And I don’t do that now because being a dad is the most important thing in my life, but also because I firmly believe when I go to bed at night that self-care is the most important thing every human being does — whether it’s going for a run, doing yoga, meditating, going to a 12-step meeting, or hanging out with my son.”

And that’s what Recovery Ready Workplaces do, proponents say, noting that recovery isn’t just stopping substance use, but taking a journey of growth, improvement, and perseverance. And that’s exactly the kind of employee companies taking the pledge value.

“If you were to look out at your employees and say, ‘raise your hand if you’ve ever struggled with a mental-health issue or a substance-use issue,’ you wouldn’t do that, but trust me when I tell you, many people in that room are struggling with it right now,” Velis said. “And when you welcome that, when you talk about it, when you let it be known that it’s OK, you’re doing a really beautiful thing.”

That’s because the stigma still exists, he added. “The three hardest words for any human being to say are also the most courageous words: ‘I need help.’ Behavioral health today is about meeting people where they are.”

Health Care

Speaking from Experience

By Elizabeth Sears


Dallas Clark

Dallas Clark says lived experience and empathy are key to what makes recovery coaches so effective.

Dallas Clark is in the business of spreading empathy and sharing hope. 

He is a recovery coach in the Recovery Coaching program at MHA’s BestLife Emotional Health and Wellness Center in Springfield. Inspired by the positive influence his own recovery coach had on him, Clark helps individuals who are facing the challenges of addiction to meet their goals and connect back into the community. 

A recovery coach is someone who has gone through the recovery process themselves and has completed the certifications required to become a coach. They act as a bridge to recovery, a ‘concierge’ of sorts, helping clients take control and regain power in their lives by providing them with wellness plans, encouragement, and other forms of assistance.

This model of treatment works because of the trust that is built between coaches and clients. Due to walking a similar path, recovery coaches are able to understand the experiences and emotions of their clients in a way others without such life experience cannot. They know what it is like to have an addiction and can connect on a personal level with someone looking to begin their own recovery. 

“The peer-to-peer counseling that recovery coaches provide is a very vital part of the process.”

“One thing that’s important about being a recovery coach is that we have lived experience. When we talk about empathy, we’ve been in those shoes,” Clark said. “I know it’s very important that you be supported by somebody that really does understand what you’re saying.”

Tommy Smyth, another recovery coach in the program, echoed this sentiment.

“The peer-to-peer counseling that recovery coaches provide is a very vital part of the process in terms of offering the comfort level of a shared experience,” he noted. “We are among the first supports someone beginning recovery encounters and often where they begin to trust the process. I continue to meet with them in addition to whoever and whatever else becomes part of their recovery.”

Recovery coaches help to motivate, support, and empower clients in a way that meets their specific needs. This help sometimes involves providing referrals. Clark recalled recently helping one of his clients find a primary-care physician and helping others with goals like finding a dentist or changing medications. 

Tommy Smyth

Tommy Smyth says no one should feel stigma or shame about seeking treatment for addiction.

Other times, recovery coaches help individuals communicate with their family, assist in building a broad support team, and provide resources for family members who may feel helpless. Whatever the case, clients are met exactly where they are in their recovery process, whether in the very early stages or further along. 

“We collaborate on a wellness plan, prioritizing goals and building on individual strengths to empower their recovery. It is their recovery,” Smyth said. “I can use my recovery as an example and in understanding what they are dealing with or feeling, but recovery is about giving power back to the individual to take charge of their healing and eventually their lives.”


Meeting a Growing Need

MHA’s Recovery Coaching program launched on Feb. 17, 2020 — less than a month before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The inability to meet clients in person proved to be a noteworthy obstacle for coaches to try to overcome, as well as trying to bring clients back into a community that was shut down.

“The major issue was not having the one-on-one connection because recovery coaching is really based on relationship building. Not being in-person and getting to meet the individual, it was hard to build a strong relationship over the phone,” Clark said. “It was a lot of meetings being on Zoom. A lot of people didn’t know how to use Zoom, so that was a difficult part, and just connecting people back into the community.”

However, the pandemic’s impact did not mean a slow start for the program. There was only one coach at the time of its initial launch, but an immediately full caseload emphasized a need to add more staff. Since then, MHA has added four certified recovery coaches for a total of five coaches in the program. They are continuing to expand, planning to take on more coaches as needed.

“We’re starting to build collaborations with other agencies, which are providing more referrals for us, so that’s one reason we’re expanding the Recovery Coaching program,” Clark said.

The program has now shifted to a hybrid format, offering a combination of in-person and remote coaching. Also, the impact of certain resources reopening after previously closing during the pandemic has been felt greatly by members of the program. 

“We’re getting back to that place now where recovery centers are back open. Drop-off centers are back open, and that’s a big plus because, when the pandemic hit, a lot of places had shut down that are recovery-oriented,” Clark said. “People didn’t have those safe places to turn to.”

Smyth spoke on the recent death of Jimmy Hayes, an NHL hockey player from Massachusetts who died from a combination of fentanyl and cocaine. Hayes’s father expressed fear of the media portraying his son as a “junkie.” In response to this, Smyth emphasized the importance of treating individuals who experience addiction with empathy and dignity, as well as providing them with the help they need. 

“If you want to get help, there are people out there, including recovery coaches who have been where you are, willing to walk and fight with you. You don’t have to keep going through what you are going through alone — you can take control, and you will get your life back.”

Addiction is a disease with a gripping nature that cannot be overstated, and with the especially risky nature of drugs being laced with cheaper and more lethal substances and sold to unsuspecting buyers, resources like MHA’s Recovery Coaching program are essential for members of the community experiencing addiction, Smyth noted.

“Recovery coaches can and do make a difference. The more we can educate the public about addiction and the role recovery coaches can play, the better,” he said. “No one should be stigmatized or judged for having an addiction to a substance. No one should be made to feel shame, rejection, or failure in seeking treatment to start and sustain recovery.”


From Despair to Hope

The feelings of empathy and hope that Clark and Smyth exude can be felt in a single conversation with them. Smyth concluded with a word of encouragement for anyone seeking to regain control of their lives from an addiction. 

“If you want to get help, there are people out there, including recovery coaches who have been where you are, willing to walk and fight with you. You don’t have to keep going through what you are going through alone — you can take control, and you will get your life back.”

When asked what message he would like to leave with BusinessWest’s readers, Clark spoke, without a single hesitation, of hope.

“I think the most important part is providing that hope for others. I always tell people that I didn’t know what that looked like. I didn’t even believe in myself, but somebody believed in me. I didn’t have hope — somebody gave hope to me.”



By Christine Palmieri

September is National Recovery Month. ‘Recovery’ is a word that gets used a lot in the world of mental health and addiction services, sometimes so much so that I think we can easily lose sight of what it represents. In my role with the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA), I often have the opportunity to talk to newly hired staff about the idea of recovery. We discuss what it means and what it can look like in the context of working with people who have experienced trauma, homelessness, psychiatric diagnosis, and substance problems.

When I ask new staff the question, “what does it mean to recover?” I frequently hear things like “getting better” or “getting back to where you were” or “having a better quality of life.” Although I tell staff there are no wrong answers to this question, secretly I think there are. They’re common and easy, but insufficient.

As with many things, I think it’s easier to talk about what recovery is by defining what it isn’t. For me, recovery isn’t a cure. It isn’t a finish line or a place people get to. It isn’t a goal that can be neatly summarized in a treatment plan. I believe recovery is a process that is unique and intimately personal to the individual going through it. Ultimately, though, I think the answer to the question “what does it mean to recover?” should be “it isn’t for me to say.”

I believe recovery is a process that is unique and intimately personal to the individual going through it.

As providers of services, or as loved ones, community members, and policy makers, I don’t believe it’s up to us to define what recovery means or looks like for people going through it. Each person needs to examine and define what it means to them. For the rest of us, I think the more important question is “what makes recovery possible?” When the question is posed this way, we are able to engage this idea of recovery in a much different and more productive way. This question offers the opportunity to share the responsibility and partner with those we support.

The analogy of a seedling is often used when describing this process of recovery, and one I use when I talk to our new hires about their roles and responsibilities as providers of service. Seeds are remarkable little things. For me, they represent unlimited potential. A seed no bigger than a grain of rice contains within it everything it needs to grow into a giant sequoia. But no seed can grow without the right environmental conditions. No amount of force or assertion of control can make a seed grow. It needs the right soil, the right amount of water, and the right amount of light.

In the same way, within each person who has experienced trauma, homelessness, psychiatric diagnosis, or problems with substances, I believe there lies unlimited potential for growth, and each person needs the right environment for the process of recovery to take place. As providers, loved ones, community members, and policy makers, we very often control that environment. Metaphorically, we provide the soil, the water and the light.

Soil is the place where recovery begins. It offers a place for the seed to grow roots, to gather strength, security, and safety. Soil is what keeps trees rooted tightly to the ground through storms. It is our responsibility to offer environments where people in recovery feel safe and secure, to try out new ways of coping and new ways of managing the difficulties and challenges that life presents to all of us.

Water provides a seedling with essential nourishment. We need to find ways to support people in recovery to discover what truly nourishes them. The work of recovery is hard. It requires taking risks and feeling uncomfortable. We cannot do the work of recovery for anyone else, but we can and should work to help people in recovery find the supportive relationships, meaningful roles, and reasons to do that hard work.

Light provides the energy necessary for growth. In recovery, I believe light is offered through the hope and understanding that every person has within them the potential to live a full and active life in the community, whatever that means for them. As providers, loved ones, community members, and policy makers, it is our role to shine the light of hope for people who have experienced discrimination, loss of power and control, and in many cases a loss of their identity. We hold this hope and offer this light because we know, without question, that recovery, however it is defined, is not only possible, but is happening, right now, all around us.

Christine Palmieri is vice president of the Division of Recovery and Housing at MHA.