“When you look at people holistically and start valuing their mind-body resiliency, I think there is a level of excitement, and better outcomes.”
September is Recovery Month. This year’s theme is Join the Voices for Recovery: Together on Pathways to Wellness. It is very fitting that Larry Fricks is our featured Integrated Care Thought Leader this month, as he is one of the nation’s greatest leaders in peer-led services, wellness, and recovery. An amazing individual who has devoted his life to helping others, Mr. Fricks was gracious enough to his insights into the importance of whole health wellness and resiliency and the vital role of engaging with people who have the lived-experience to provide support through the process. He offered insight into the role that a whole health approach plays in improving health outcomes and managing wellness. Drawing from his own experiences, Mr. Fricks identified many factors that contribute to a person’s recovery process. Acknowledging that factors such as race, socioeconomic status, and personal support system play a crucial role:
“I don’t think you can underestimate what social determinants do to break somebody down.”
Larry Fricks is Director of the Appalachian Consulting Group and Deputy Director of the SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions. For 13 years he served as Georgia’s Director of the Office of Consumer Relations and Recovery in the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Addictive Diseases. A founder of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network and Georgia’s Peer Specialist Training and Certification, he has a journalism degree from the University of Georgia and has won numerous journalism awards. He is a recipient of the American Association for World Health Award and the Lifetime Achievement Voice Award from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for the development and adoption of multiple innovative, community recovery-oriented programs and services. Mr. Fricks’s recovery story and life’s work to support the recovery of others was published by HarperCollins in the New York Time’s best-selling book Strong at the Broken Places by Richard M. Cohen. (Click here for video of Mr. Fricks’s interview on the Today Show.) He is also the creator of the Whole Health Action Management (WHAM) training, a best practice model which strengthens the peer workforce’s role in healthcare delivery.
From Peer Support to Whole Health and Resiliency
I first met Mr. Fricks in 2000 in Rockford, Illinois. He was the keynote speaker at the Consumer Family Forum, addressing a group who receive behavioral health services, their families, and behavioral health professionals from across the state. His passion resonated among the 300+ attendees as he shared his personal recovery story, urging others to believe that recovery is possible. I vividly recall (and have frequently shared with others) a very moving story that he shared about an initiative that has grown to be The Gardens at Saint Elizabeths: A National Memorial of Recovered Dignity, honoring the hundreds of thousands of people who died and were buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of psychiatric hospitals…and were forgotten:
Larry Fricks: Their graves were decimated and desecrated and they have no markers and people didn’t care about maintaining their graves. They walked the Earth and they had a life. Mothers, husbands and wives, children. They had wonderful things happen, and they saw miracles, and they had heartbreak, and you’re just honoring that experience. I just really believe that the Memorial is drawing people that I never expected to draw…very inspiring.
Through the years, Mr. Fricks has traveled from state to state, providing inspiration to so many, sharing his vision, and leading the way to transforming the way behavioral health organizations provide services. He led the national initiative to include peer-led services as a core feature, and is now working with states to embed Peer Support Specialists and Family Peer Specialists in integrated healthcare efforts as well. He currently divides his time between his work with the Appalachian Consulting Group based in Georgia, and his work in Washington, DC, as Deputy Director with the SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions which has included testifying at Congressional Hearings on Mental Health.
Larry Fricks: We now know that things like a social network and service to others are huge health and resiliency factors. People who are in service to others tend to be healthier and they tend to live longer. Also they tend to be more resilient toward relapse or illness. So my life striving to be in service to others to strengthen their health and maybe strengthen their skills in recovery has had the benefit of strengthening my own recovery.
While his earlier work has focused on the role of Peer Support in the recovery process, Mr. Fricks’s work has broadened the focus to include a whole health approach. With startling reports that people with serious behavioral health conditions are dying decades earlier on average than the general population, he led a team at the SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions to create a training called Whole Health Action Management (WHAM) that is designed to address this disparity though self-management supported by peers. Mr. Fricks has great praise for the effort in Georgia to develop Peer Support, Wellness, and Respite Centers that are reducing hospitalizations.
Larry Fricks: Let me tell you about what excites me. Georgia has three of these Peer Support, Wellness, and Respite Centers and they’re going to open two more. I’m very excited about what’s going on in those centers. Basically, if you feel early warning signs of your illness, or your addiction, you can go to one of these peer respite centers where you have your own bedroom and you can stay up to seven nights, chill out, and you’re surrounded by peers trained holistically to support your wellness. I think it’s really cutting the need for more intense crisis services and hospitalizations. So I had a chance to actually pull a shift in one of them, I answered the warm line and experienced what it was like to provide healing support by simply listening, or maybe just ask a few quetions for deeper reflection like we are trained to do. These peer support wellness centers are returning us to whole health. Removing some of the stigma, giving us a sense of owning our recovery and being proactive, and really engaging peer support to be successful. Georgia is leading the nation. With three we had more than any state, and with five we’ll really be out in front.
What’s next on the horizon?
Larry Fricks: I’m really excited about epigenetics. On April 2 of this year, Time magazine had a cover story on curing cancer, and this whole science on epigenetics basically says DNA does not have the last say. There are mind-body resiliency factors and there’s more and more research on epigenetics. “Epi” means over and the epi is the cell structure over your genome, over the DNA. And what they’re saying here is: Things that you do, like what you eat and managing stress to stay well, it determine which genes switch on and switch off. And so being aware of this thing, if you look at the WHAM training, we include ten health and resiliency factors which we got from Dr. Greg Fricchione who used to run Mrs. Carter’s Mental Health Program [at the Carter Center], and now he’s director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. These prevention doctors are big on something called the Relaxation Response, and so we’re looking at the things you can do to switch on and switch off gene markers; and they can impact the next generation.
And in parting:
I’m aware that there are just people and things that happen in your life that, if you’re open to it, you work on staying connected and having faith, your life can experience great meaning and purpose.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “We’re all bound in a mutual destiny and I’m not all I can be until you’re all you can be, and you’re not all you can be until I’m all I can be.” We should be about connection. We should be about cooperation, and there’s a spiritual power to that, and when you’re open to it, positive things just seem to happen. And you’re inspired by it.
Sometimes you want to shake your head and say, “Oh my gosh, why don’t I have more faith?”