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Howard Center Conference Focuses on Connection

Celebrated speakers discuss value of personal relationships for those struggling with substance use and mental health challenges

When Liza Ryan was 16 years old and in recovery from alcohol and opioid addiction in Buffalo, N.Y., she found it most helpful to spend time with someone who understood her experience.

That person ended up being “a 75-year-old Irish dude,” as she described him, an alcoholic who hung out with the teenager in a seedy part of town. “That was the connection that I didn’t even know I needed,” she said while speaking on a panel about recovery for the annual conference of Howard Center, the Chittenden County agency for people struggling with substance use and mental health difficulties.

The theme of connection – the personal relationships that bolster people facing those challenges – ran throughout the conference, entitled “Overcoming Adversity: Bold Perspectives on Mental Health and Addiction.” The day-long event on June 3 at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Burlington gathered a remarkable roster of prominent speakers, including New York Times columnist Charles Blow and award-winning author Andrew Solomon, a national expert on depression.

“The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety – it’s connection,” said Johann Hari,  another conference speaker who has written books on the war on drugs and the causes of depression and has presented a popular TED talk on addiction.

Strong and broad community and family support networks help keep people healthy and resilient, Hari said. “Our sense of ‘home’ is too small to meet the needs of our wellbeing.”

Professionals who treat patients as they go through recovery should look beyond their own medical expertise and include the perspectives of those closely surrounding those patients, agreed Dr. Sandra Steingard, chief medical officer for Howard Center and associate professor of psychiatry at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at The University of Vermont. Social connections are crucial to recovery, she said during her talk at the conference.

“We need to bring in the person at the center of concern and involve their social and family network,” Steingard told more than 400 conference attendees, most of them working for Vermont organizations that provide support services and care. “Those open conversations are healing. It’s a basic therapeutic attitude that values humility, uncertainty and flexibility through open, humble conversations.”

Chuck Myers, executive director of Northeastern Family Institute (NFI) Vermont, was impressed enough with the conference to stop Howard Center CEO Bob Bick and tell him that. NFI Vermont is a nonprofit agency focused on children with severe emotional, behavioral and mental health challenges.

“The speakers are able to articulate the importance of the richness of human connection, which is really the antidote,” Myers explained of his enthusiasm.

“It’s the lack of supports in our culture that create most of the problems around trauma,” which provides the conditions that allow addiction and mental illness to thrive, he said.

The conference ended on a high note for those in recovery, Ryan and her two fellow panelists shared their experiences with those challenges. Audience members asked the panel about the elements that aided their recovery efforts.

Michael Couture, a Howard Center board member and Vermont business owner of multiple audio and video production and media consulting companies, said the support of others through Alcoholics Anonymous made a big difference in his 10 years of sobriety. That’s one of the reasons he became a peer recovery coach for the Turning Point Center of Chittenden County. He and Ryan, also a Turning Point coach, work on call in the emergency department of UVM Medical Center and meet with patients who come in with substance use disorder – sometimes for hours at a time.

The ability for those patients to connect with someone who isn’t a doctor but can relate to their struggles is a huge benefit to them, Couture said. “They are so relieved not to feel judged.”

This story was reported by Carolyn Shapiro and Emily McManamy, with the UVM Health Network.