Quick Response Team member understands addiction

On a recent Saturday, Rachel Johnson and fellow Quick Response Team (QRT) members canvassed neighborhoods in Colerain Township. Going door-to-door, they handed out resource packets and talked to residents about how people experiencing addiction can get help.

This personal engagement is a hallmark of the QRT model, developed by Colerain in response to the opiate epidemic. “It’s a lot about engaging the people, keeping in contact with them, and being there when they are ready to change,” said Rachel, a clinical specialist with Addiction Services Council. She works on QRTs in Cincinnati and Colerain.

The QRT consists of a police officer, paramedic, addiction specialist, and peer support specialist. They visit people within a few days of an overdose and try to get them into treatment. It might not happen on the first visit. “We don’t give up on anyone,” Rachel said. “And it doesn’t matter how many times you overdose or how many times you tell us no, we’re still going to be there.”

Rachel knows something about not giving up. She is recovering from addiction herself.

Rachel’s story
“Growing up, I really saw a lot of alcohol and addiction, through family members and through neighborhoods I lived in,” Rachel said. Despite using drugs and alcohol “pretty heavily” in middle and high school, she excelled academically and attended college on a full scholarship. Rachel majored in psychology. “I was trying to figure out what it was that I could do to help the community I grew up in, how I could help affect change,” she said.

After college, Rachel’s first job involved working with people with substance use disorders and severe mental illness. “I was still using pretty heavily myself, but still unable to recognize that my substance use was actually a disorder as well.”

While working on her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, Rachel realized that she had a problem and needed help. She began following the self-care routines that she taught her clients and attending an anonymous 12-step program.

“I’ve been there”
Today, Rachel is in recovery. Through the QRT, she helps others get there. “Not that people who aren’t in recovery can’t be effective counselors in the substance use field, but it does help me to really be able to empathize, because I know where they’ve been and I know where they are at,” Rachel said. “I’ve been there.”

While she doesn’t always tell clients about her history of substance use, “it’s really helpful when I’m trying to convince someone that it is possible to be in recovery, that it is possible to remove the barriers to succeed in your goals.”

The stigma of addiction
There is a stigma around addiction that other diseases, like cancer or heart disease, don’t carry. Negative perceptions persist even for people in recovery.

“I also struggle with stigma in the professional community,” said Rachel, who has been working in the field for ten years and is close to earning a doctoral degree. “I don’t mind it so much, because I feel like I get to stand and fight for breaking the stigma around substance use disorders and mental health,” she said. “But it … shows how the community needs more education and more support around understanding the disease of addiction, and recognizing that those of us in recovery are just as qualified as anyone else to work in these professional career fields.”

Shana Merrick, director of community-based services with Addiction Services Council, said the field needs people like Rachel. “The client can see in their eyes that they know exactly what they are talking about,” said Shana, who oversees QRTs in Northern Kentucky and Hamilton County, including Colerain. “That kind of connection really comes from knowing that it’s not just empathy. It’s ‘I have truly been in your shoes and I know what this is.’ It is like magic. People soften, people become more attentive, and they can really connect and engage.”

Colerain’s QRT model is successful
Colerain Assistant Fire Chief Will Mueller said the QRT has been effective in Colerain. In 2015-2017, 81 percent of people the QRT connected with went into treatment. Colerain’s QRT has become a model for other communities. Rachel and Shana said it works for many reasons: the follow up within days of an overdose, the collaboration between law enforcement and medicine, the personal engagement and support. All of these reflect the QRT’s approach of treating addiction with compassion and empathy.

“Using judgment or stigma toward people doesn’t help. They need support. That’s why we do QRT,” Rachel said. She knows this from her own experience. “Because, we are still people, and we’re still capable of achieving all of our goals, and we’re still capable of being really productive members of society.”