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You Can’t Help Me If You Don’t Hear Me First

I am not a scientist and I am not a counselor.  I am not an expert, but I have learned to be a good listener.  I am the Social Impact Coordinator for Aspenti Health, a toxicology lab in Burlington, Vermont which provides substance use testing, a critical part of a patient’s treatment plan.  We are much more than a traditional lab.  We are patient centric, offer community impact through alliances and partnerships, and we embrace the responsibility of social stewardship to affect positive change.

My position is newly created, and my first task was a needs assessment and one of inquiry.  I endeavored to listen and learn of needs – those of our patients, clients of community organizations and the organizations themselves – to identify community challenges, emerging trends and ways to partner.

On my drive home one evening, I was reminded of a blessing in disguise presented during my first-year internship as a Master of Social Work graduate student.  I was assigned to an Area Agency on Aging which was an hour from home, a demographic I hadn’t considered working with, and quite honestly, I went into it with a bad attitude.

The Central Vermont Council on Aging utilized “Options Counseling” (OC).  It assumes that if we can engage the client in exploring ways to feel more secure in their world, then we can support them in remaining fulfilled.  OC allows us to do so in a way that shifts from the “we know what’s best for you” approach, to one that engages the client in exploring their goals and helping to achieve them.  It is deeply respectful and highly collaborative.

Eventually, I was given the unique opportunity to meet with older adults in their homes, learn of their needs and try to find a solution.  I had studied the many programs available to assist Vermonters, and I was eager to impart my knowledge and better their lives.  Oh, how wrong I was.  Truth be told, I was not the expert on anything – my clients were.  They knew their situation, they knew where they wanted to be, and what they needed was the information necessary to make the best decision possible. With this approach, they remain the true stewards of their destiny, buoyed by the knowledge of what is available.

As I became a little more proficient, I learned that Options Counseling has three parts:

  • Engagement Through Relationship Building
  • Identifying Client Preferences
  • Introducing Participant-Directed Options in an Unbiased Manner

Individuals in early recovery, like the elder community, are often unaware of available programs and resources.  They may be juggling drug testing, Medication Assisted Treatment, counseling, and probation and parole appointments as well as 12-step meetings.  Schedules are often so heavily laden with imposed commitments, individuals don’t have the opportunity to explore available social service options.

Utilizing what was learned during my internship, we have incorporated a Collaborative Helping Model pilot which utilizes Options Counseling in one of our Patient Service Centers.  It is an opportunity to develop deep connections with our patients, understand their concerns and challenges, and when directed, present available options.  Out of respect, we present available options only in an unbiased manner, and based on patient preference, we can serve as a potential warm hand-off to those who provide the services our patients desire.

We’ve come to realize and value that social service support for patients with Substance Use Disorder’s need not be restricted to traditional or primary therapeutic relationships; laboratories may be an effective mechanism for increasing awareness to address social needs of individuals.

“Who are you as a person?”  I’ve wondered often how many never get asked that question.  They may be asked what they need and they may be judged for having that need.  When an individual finds the courage to ask for help and who they are is not validated, the message received is the assumption they have nothing of value to offer.  My hope is that we will want to know who they are, what they value, and what makes them valuable.

Discovering who they are can help us discover who they may need to know, not just based on their needs but even more based on their talents and abilities.  Listening is an art.  Compassion is a virtue. Respect for individual vision, however, is perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give.

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