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The nonprofit Promise Recovery Network will work with agencies in seven states on a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration-funded initiative.

By Taylor Sisk

Cherene Allen-Caraco received a message Thursday before last that someone from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration had left a message for her to give them a ring.

The next morning, she picked up the phone.

The following Tuesday, five days after that initial call, Allen-Caraco and colleagues from her organization, Promise Resource Network, began work on a SAMHSA-funded multiyear, seven-state initiative designed to build capacity around evidence-based recovery practices.

Cherene Allen-Caraco, CEO of Promise Resource Network, outlines her vision of mental health recovery after the annual Recovery Conference held outside Winston-Salem in November 2014, while Ted Thomas, PRN’s recovery educator, looks on. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

So to recap: a contract involving multiple states and the federal government signed, sealed and delivering in less than a week.

“You can’t even make this up,” Allen-Caraco, the organization’s CEO, said on Monday, a bit dizzied, from within the vortex of change, but assured of her agency’s ability to deliver.

What’s unique about Allen-Caraco’s organization is that she, and many others working for PRN, have lived with, and recovered from, mental health issues. The strength of their work, Allen-Caraco believes, comes from having “lived experience,” allowing them to serve as peers to the folks they assist, to relate to their experiences and encourage their recover.

“I do this every day because I live it every single day, and I know a lot of my peer colleagues do this because we live it, and we’re very passionate about it,” Allen-Caraco told N.C. Health News in an interview last November.

Target: recovery

The objective of the SAMHSA contract is to improve the quality of life of people living with behavioral health issues and diminish their dependence on the health care system.

PRN did not apply to work on this initiative, nor has it ever participated in a SAMHSA-funded project. But over the past decade, it’s worked with organizations in most of the states with which it’s now contracted under this agreement: Alabama, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Utah and Washington. PRN has distinguished itself in that work.

The initiative, Allen-Caraco said, is intended to provide support to help people “move away from the cycle of poverty that often is associated with getting a diagnosis and becoming a service recipient.”

It aims to break that cycle, she said, to underscore that receiving a diagnosis doesn’t mean losing the capacity to work and thrive – doesn’t mean the loss of one’s identity.

“You can be an employee and you can be a homeowner and you can be a spouse,” Allen-Caraco said, “all of those things you can have in your life despite having that diagnosis.”

Discovering the path

PRN’s work is rooted in the principles of recovery-oriented care, founded on the belief that those with behavioral health issues should be helped to find their own paths back to well-being and productivity.

The agency will work directly with the Massachusetts-based Center for Social Innovation on a SAMHSA-funded program providing technical assistance, consulting and training to agencies within the seven enrolled states.

People who receive a behavioral health diagnosis are generally affixed with a label of consumer, client or patient, Allen-Caraco said. When you’re “pushed into that identity,” she said, it’s easy to get “swallowed” by it.

“Along with that comes this prophecy of, ‘You will always need to be cared for and you will always need services and you will always go between unwell and stable.’ That’s what you’re given as a picture of what you can expect in your future.”

This initiative, she said, helps break that cycle.

“Oftentimes, people come in and they don’t have a vision anymore because it’s been broken down,” she said in 2014. “My job is to give you enough information and help you overcome some of those barriers to your dream health.”

Allen-Caraco points out that in 2012, North Carolina’s unemployment rate for people served in publicly funded mental health programs was 85.2 percent. She hopes that North Carolina will soon be among the states working with SAMHSA on this initiative.

“We really need to prioritize and value the lived experience and employment” for those in recovery, she urged. “And we’re just not there as a state yet.”

“We know that poverty is related to chronic illness,” she said. “We must “reshape that perspective and create opportunities for people to build a life outside of being a service recipient.

“That is just vital to recovery.”

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