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Engaging the Community
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Dr. Sandra Young Olson, Executive Director of the Coalition of Behavioral Health Services, discusses a curriculum she is developing to train community members to identify and assist people who are struggling with substance use problems. Sandy’s own lived experience, knowledge, and passion have inspired her to find ways to help others find solutions.
Engaging the Community

“Being on this side of sobriety has helped to make me a more productive person because today, at eleven and a half years sober, I have solutions,” says Dr. Sandra Young Olson. “I am pretty public about it now, and it just folds into what I am doing or saying.”

Sandy is the Executive Director of The Coalition of Behavioral Health Services and Partnership for a Drug-Free Spring Branch in Houston, TX. As a woman who is in long-term recovery, she is eager to share her own experiences with others who might benefit.

Getting sober paved the way for Sandy to gain insight into her own mental health disorder, and that has helped her to address those issues and accept the things that happen in her life. Today, she works with many women who are in recovery, which, in turn, assists with her own recovery. “It is something that I cherish,” says Sandy, who has a long family history of both alcoholism and mental illness. She knows that accepting the reality of her own needs has allowed her to make quantum leaps in her life.

One of these leaps can be seen in her work with the Coalition of Behavioral Health Services, where she is leading a multi-organizational team to develop and implement a community-based outreach model called “First Call Trainings.” The team includes a wide variety of expertise, including representatives from the Houston Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, MHMRA of Harris County, SEARCH Homeless Services, Houston Area Community Services, and Volunteers of America, among others.

The First Call project can be seen as an extension of the views and life experiences of Sandy, whose path provides a living example of recovery supports arising from life challenges and professional experiences. “This initiative is one of the strategies we are developing to attract people to and engage them in the prospect of recovery as a desirable way of life, and to engage the entire community in this process,” she says.

“Our goal with First Call is to develop a training that will enable lay community members to be competent and willing to approach a person who has a substance use problem and to offer encouragement and hope,” says Sandy. “We want to recognize the power of the community to heal and sustain people. We are working towards a world where one community member encourages another and invites the other to seek help without shame. The strategy is intended to create positive outcomes related to earlier attraction to—and engagement with—the prospect of substance abuse recovery.”

For many years, Sandy experienced situations in the community that underscored the need for this type of training. She started looking into a program that addressed elements of bystander intervention. This entails a five-step decision-making process that asks community members to notice if something is going on, be more aware of their environment, identify if there is a problem, and make a conscious decision to do something—even if eight other people have done nothing. These steps are supported with the program’s alcohol training, all of which is in the context of maintaining personal safety with compassion.

Sandy says First Call fills a gap in the recovery support movement and has its roots in both her academic and life experiences. She and her team are also looking at how to integrate other models, such as Mental Health First Aid, into First Call.

Sandy would like to see her entire community receive this training, and the team has applied for funding from local groups. She is passionate about this work, partly because it is her professional mission, and partly because of her own personal experiences. Recovery in this context comes through the convergence of knowledge, ideas, and experience—and Sandy possesses all three.

“I can recall when I was going downhill twenty years before I received any help. Before I got sober, I had written in a journal that I think I may be drinking too much, and I have always wondered why no one helped me,” says Sandy. “Even if I had been angry about someone helping me, there is a secret part of me that would have been grateful because it would have said that someone cared.”

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