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Magic on the Mountain

With a focus on connecting with clients on a personal level, English Mountain Recovery is counting its successes one recovery story at a time.

Nestled in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains on 27 picturesque acres in Sevierville, Tennessee, English Mountain Recovery has been teaching adults to lead productive lives in recovery since 2005. Founded by Dick and Nancy Kahn, the center has been navigated to international recognition by David A. Cunningham, a leader in addiction therapies who, at 26 years sober, gives an empathetic perspective on the unique challenges facing clients beginning anew. The primary residential program, which combines the traditional 12-step approach with a variety of treatment therapies, such as equine, experiential, creative arts, music and relapse prevention, attracts clients from across the United States and from countries as far as Australia and Croatia.

With its acquisition in spring 2017 by Summit Behavioral Healthcare, based in Franklin, Tennessee, English Mountain Recovery is now poised to move into its exciting next chapter. Cunningham, the long-time executive director, has a new position heading the center’s national clinical outreach — a role that brings him closer to his roots in working directly with individuals and families affected by addiction and colleagues throughout the United States.

Recovery Campus caught up with Cunningham to discuss the driving forces behind English Mountain Recovery’s success and what the acquisition means for the center’s future.

Recovery Campus: English Mountain makes a personal approach to treatment a priority. How is this accomplished?

David Cunningham: We pride ourselves on our quality and affordability of care. Because many of our staff members are in recovery themselves, they have an acute understanding of the journey. We serve a maximum of 36 clients in our residential treatment facility at any one time, which allows us to get to know them and their families well, give more individualized care, and be more personable. Our clients can be as young as 18 or well into their 60s, but most are in their upper 20s to lower 30s.

Our dietary staff goes above and beyond and is a great example of our personal touch. We have one local chef, one from Germany and one from Brazil who give clients a great variety of fresh, healthy food and will accommodate any dietary restriction. When clients are about to leave, they can select what they would like to eat on their final night, and our team makes a big deal out of birthdays. They often surprise clients unprompted. A few years back, a young lady was admitted shortly after her birthday with this it’s-the-end-of-the-world look on her face. The dietary staff allowed her to get settled and a few days later threw her a birthday party. She said that was the first birthday she could recall having since she was a child. A few weeks later, I watched a beautiful smile emerge on that young lady’s face. Our clients see how much we care.

RC: How does your mountain setting play a role in recovery?

DC: The location removes clients from daily distractions and gives them an opportunity to focus on themselves. When I was younger, I went through several treatments in facilities that were not very comfortable. I wanted people coming into recovery at English Mountain to have a nicer place than I experienced. When clients arrive, we try to pair them with a roommate who is seasoned and thriving. They have spacious living rooms and sleep on handmade, local log beds.

Our program separates genders, which also minimizes distractions. Men and women do everything separately — from groups to recreation to meals. We want them to focus truly on why they are there. The gender-specific program also allows our staff to deal sensitively with gender-unique physiological, emotional and relational issues. For example, women who have endured trauma may be especially uncomfortable sharing their experiences around men. During our gender-specific therapy sessions, clients feel supported and empowered by their same-sex peers.

RC: You are proud of the conversion rate of your staff, who get many clients to remain in treatment longer to help promote successful recovery.

DC: Very much so. Our staff is the best I’ve ever had at converting people who didn’t want to stay beyond 30 days to remain for 90 days.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse released a statement in 1999 stating that the threshold in treatment was crossed at three months. Considering this, I originally wanted to have a minimum 90-day program but had to add 30- and 60-day options because some clients said they could not be away for three months. So, we get people who come to us kicking and screaming and don’t want to be here even 30 days who go on to complete 90 days of treatment. We also have people who swore they would never do sober living who, after the staff worked with them, go on to sober living. In fact, most our alumni progress to sober living somewhere in the country.

RC: Healing the mind, body and spirit are important focuses. Can you tell us more about the holistic options you offer?

DC: We are foundationally based on the 12-step recovery model and provide spiritual- and abstinence-based treatment. Replacement drugs are not part of our treatment. Rather, we round out the treatment experience with holistic options, such as creative arts, yoga, music therapy, equine-assisted therapy, experiential programs, spiritual advising and psychoeducation.

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