PITTSFIELD — As the opioid crisis drags on, lawmakers and the governor want new ways to fight it.
One now getting attention is "recovery coaching" — a practice that's poised to expand in Berkshire County, which has seen at least 195 people succumb to opioid overdoses since 2010, according to the state Department of Public Health.
A recovery coach is an ally, mentor, confidant, cheerleader and truth-teller. The coach works as a peer, outside of the medically oriented treatment system, to help someone fighting addiction not only resist substance abuse, but cope with all kinds of everyday problems.
"I think it's the new wave," said Megan Eldridge-Wroldson, who oversees the Brien Center's addiction treatment program in Pittsfield.
Some see this coaching as an alternative to traditional 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. While 12-step "sponsors" advise participants on ways to conform to that system, recovery coaches view clients as their own best resources — as those who know best what hasn't worked yet, and what might still, its proponents say.
The George B. Crane Memorial Center in Pittsfield will launch its first training program for recovery coaches April 30. Over five days, participants will learn ways to help clients overcome the many obstacles that face those in recovery. As of Friday, five people had registered for the training with more seats available, according to Doug Malins, the center's executive director.
Joseph Buyse, who will lead the training, said a recovery coach helps clients identify their strengths and be honest about their problems.
Unlike the inpatient addiction treatment system, which has added more than 1,100 beds in Massachusetts since 2016, the recovery coach remains available for the dark moments when people are most vulnerable to relapse into substance misuse.
"The basic question is, 'How can I help you with your recovery today?'" said Buyse, who joined the center recently as its program director.
The state Legislature's Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery is now going through legislation Gov. Charlie Baker submitted in November. Among other things, Baker's proposal promotes use of recovery coaches and establishes a commission to recommend standards for recovery coach credentials.
The governor's bill doubles down on measures implemented in 2016, which Baker's office credits with helping to cut the overall number of opioid overdose deaths by 8.3 percent in 2017, compared to the year before.
Since 2010, the state has seen 10,171 confirmed and estimated fatal opioid overdoses.
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, sits on the joint committee reviewing Baker's proposals.
Hinds said he expects the bill will expand use of recovery coaches, which he sees, increasingly, as part of the mix of strategies against addiction.
"I view them as an important element for supporting individual journeys to recovery with credible partners," Hinds said.
The DPH already backs use of such coaches, says spokeswoman Ann Scales.
"Recovery coaches can play a vital role in longterm treatment efforts to help people struggling with addiction," she said.
The department funds the work of recovery coaches in licensed outpatient programs, Scales said, and in a pilot program that has placed coaches in hospital emergency departments. As the field emerges, the work of coaches is increasingly eligible for insurance reimbursement.
On its own, the DPH has bolstered the supply of coaches through its Recovery Coach Academy, holding five-day training sessions in locations around the state. To date, the DPH has trained 979 coaches, Scales said, and helped another 177 people qualify to supervise the work of such coaches.
As with all coaching programs, available from groups around the country for at least a decade, the academy's goal is to help people begin and sustain recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs.
The Crane center in Pittsfield aims to bring regular access to recovery coach training to the Berkshires.
"If this goes, it's a huge step for us," said Malins, the center's executive director. "This will be the first in Berkshire County."
The workshop is a centerpiece of the nonprofit center's plan to remake itself as a recovery support center for people facing all kinds of addictions. Malins said he hopes to obtain DPH funding for its work. "That would help us keep our doors open," he said.
The center's space on Linden Street is used by 12-step programs as well.
Buyse said he believes recovery coaching can assemble "an army of volunteers" able to help address addiction of all types. As with any army, those in service must be ready to roll at a moment's notice, keeping in touch with clients by phone on nights and weekends, if needed.
"The recovery movement is now embracing all pathways to recovery," Buyse said. "I'm 28 years in the recovery community and I have a passion for doing this."
Buyse moved recently to the Berkshires after receiving his own recovery coach training through the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, based in Hartford.
"It was a whole new way of looking at things," he said of coaching.
Eldridge-Wroldson, of the Brien Center, said she hopes to expand its use of recovery coaching. It already works with the DPH's Bureau of Substance and Addiction Services to offer low-cost training to people with, as she put it, "lived experience."
A prospective coach's own recovery is seen by most as part of what makes them useful to clients.
"Working with someone who has lived experience is powerful and allows for connections not always made in a traditional treatment setting," Eldridge-Wroldson said.
She said the Brien Center expects to participate in a DPH training this spring, likely at a location outside of the county.
"A lot of organizations are still building their capacity to offer it," she said of coaching.
"There's plenty of work for everyone," Eldridge-Wroldson said, referring to the opioid crisis. "We've been trying to get folks trained. We've got to think of different ways to do this."
Statistics show widespread use of opioid medications in the Berkshires. As part of earlier legislation, the state tracks prescriptions. As of 2017, 14,352 county residents had prescriptions for opioids, more than a tenth of the county's population. In all, the monitoring program was tracking 779,594 doses of opioid medication in the county.
That tally is not a count of people addicted to the substances, but neither does it track illicit use of prescription opioids or other drugs, such as heroin.
One of the closest existing training programs was started at Westfield State University by Linda Sarage, who said she has been in recovery for 30 years. In the Westfield program's first year, one Berkshire County resident took part in a 60-hour, 11-week training held Saturdays and backed by a federal grant.
Sarage said the program taps into common sense, as well as centuries of human experience. "Since Native Americans back in the 17th century were supporting each other," she said. "There's an opportunity to trust and credibility that can be offered to someone at a turning point in their life that doesn't exist in any other way."
In her view, the rise of the professions intruded on the practice of people helping each other with issues like addiction.
"We kind of forget — treatment and then what?" Sarage asked. "There's this thing called life. That's where recovery, and ultimately wellness, comes in."
"People are finally recognizing that treatment is only the beginning," she said. "Treatment opens a door, in some cases only a window," she said.
A recovery coach levels with his or her clients.
"'Where are you now? What do you want to do?'" Sarage said, voicing a coach's questions. "It's a paradigm shift."
For information on the recovery coach training at the George B. Crane Memorial Center in Pittsfield, visit thegbcmc.org or call 413-464-7066.
The training runs from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the 81 Linden St. center from April 30 through May 4. The cost is $350 and includes lunches and training materials.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.