A Purposeful Life
Celebrating 13 years of recovery a recent Vision Recognition Award, Andrew Burki has found his passion and is giving South Florida’s treatment model –and the nation’s- a make-over. Here, he talks about the region’s collegiate recovery communities and his game-changing work at Life of Purpose.
Q: I understand that South Florida is full of treatment centers and after-care housing for young adults. Can you talk about the variety that’s available? Why is South Florida one of “the” destinations for treatment?
In places with warmer climates, we have seen an explosion of the treatment industry—down here, Texas and Southern California. South Florida and Southern California are probably the largest. People come down for treatment, relocate, and many of them want to get involved in the treatment industry. Over a couple of decades, you have a large community that develops. People in recovery want to be around other people in recovery, not just for the support it provides them as individuals but to be part of something larger. Consequently, some of the towns down here in South Florida have grown to support disproportionately large populations of people in recovery. The treatment industry, and more importantly the recovering community as a whole, just continues to expand. As a result of this dynamic, we now have the largest number of young people per capita in recovery anywhere in the country.
There are lots of facilities down here that provide primary treatment services, whether treatment lasts for a month or half a year. The bulk of resources are invested on the front end and are followed up with a sharp reduction of support services. Following the completion of primary treatment, individuals are typically referred to recovery residences and concurrently attend an intensive outpatient program for two to three months. The entire continuum of care generally takes two to nine months.
People in recovery, particularly young people, need support for longer than that. That’s where collegiate recovery comes in. Collegiate recovery programs are the logical extension of a true continuum of care for the majority of young people entering treatment. This isn’t just a recovery issue, this is a young people issue; we’re now admitting “adult” clients born in 1997, without an education. There’s no upward mobility for them. Without education, there’s no future beyond menial labor, call rooms, fast food and low-end retail. Education is the only hope most of us have to build a life worth staying in recovery for.
Q. In terms of the treatment model you just outlined, what works and what doesn’t when it comes to these young adults?
Stagnation doesn’t work. Setting someone up to fail and hoping we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps does not work. Someone like me, like us, with a substance abuse problem, we have a debilitating condition if left untreated, but it doesn’t mean we’re inherently incapable of success. Quite to the contrary I think we, as a society, are bleeding out some unbelievable talent by not properly supporting many of these young people through early recovery and into healthy collegiate recovery environments. It’s a real shame too because we probably have the kid who would have gone on to draft the specs for a space elevator kenneled like a dog in a prison cell somewhere, after 15 failed treatment episodes, instead of in an engineering program. Every time
I went to treatment, I felt like a loser. It wasn’t an inappropriate feeling either as, by any objective assessment of the situation, I was actively losing at life. What works is setting people up for success. College life and social life don’t have to be separate. Collegiate recovery programs are affording young people in recovery a normative collegiate experience, while strengthening the foundation for their future.
If you look at the research that’s being published by people like Dr. Laudet, students are actively choosing their schools based on collegiate recovery communities—just the existence of one on a campus emboldens us to live up to our potential instead of doing the bare minimum to scrape by. In order for it to work, and I mean really work, you have to have dedicated faculty and students. They fundamentally change the way we perceive ourselves not just as people in recovery but as human beings in general.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for people in recovery getting jobs, but the difference between one of us working part time and going to school instead of working full time without the educational background to secure meaningful employment, it’s distinct. When you’re a college student working in fast-food, you’re a college student with an appropriate college student job. [As a treatment provider], if you’re able to support an environment that someone derives self worth from for someone younger and earlier in recovery, and they’re able to say I’m a psych major or a business major, it fundamentally changes the way they perceive themselves. It reduces their desire to return to drugs. Collegiate recovery programs are the solution—and also recovery high schools.
Q. Why do you think treatment professionals ignore education as an option, thus forcing the unskilled worker outcome?
Treatment has historically been very much structured around the total loss model. Whatever you had going on before treatment, you need to let it go. If you were in school, you had to let it go. If you were in a relationship in which you were using, you can’t be with that person anymore. If you had a job, it wasn’t working for you. College is not just a thing; it’s a place. The thinking has been if you experienced extreme drug use there, you shouldn’t go back. But that doesn’t mean that ALL universities are inherently dangerous, especially with a college recovery program [in place]. Students in recovery can go and get plugged in with a whole different group of people. It is largely viewed incorrectly by the industry that college is a referral source. Instead, the industry needs to look at higher education for what it really is – as the most logical extension of the true continuum of care.
Q. Why is attending college so important to the recovery process?
The collegiate program is structured to help you find meaning in your life. It asks you what you want to do, who you want to be, what you want out of life? These are large existential questions not exclusive to people in recovery. That’s just what young people do. With support, people in recovery can see that they can succeed in recovery while going to school. If you can work in some thankless, minimum-wage job and show up on time and be productive, you can definitely go to school and thrive there.
Q. You wrote the business plan for Life of Purpose while getting your masters at Florida Atlantic University. What is Life of Purpose and how does it support college attendance?
Our facility is on campus, but we have people who come to us from other schools. Life of Purpose is not a new treatment center; it is a new treatment model. It was structured from the beginning as a series of macro-level social work interventions. It is designed to provide these macro-level interventions, in conjunction with the micro-level individual sessions, and the mezzo-level group and family sessions. At Life of Purpose, we are looking at the community aspect in discharge planning, and we don’t have to look hard to see that those communities are strongest in the collegiate recovery movement. We are structured to endlessly refer people to colleges and transition them over to collegiate recovery programs. There are other programs structured to get students back to school as well, but later in their recovery. We’re getting them back in as soon as possible. Where possible, they are enrolling while still at the primary treatment level of care. We literally take them from treatment to class and then back to group or individual therapy.
This adjustment to the way treatment is conducted has become necessary as the age of onset of substance abuse has gone down. We’re no longer talking about professionals going to rehab. We are talking about people who are essentially children. They don’t have skills to establish a life. They’re uneducated, and at a time in our society when it’s becoming increasingly important to have a degree. It’s like the new high school diploma. We have all these young people [in recovery] that end up in dead-end, minimum-wage jobs. As an industry, we need to step up and get people educated or the next generation of people in recovery is going to be menial laborers. Conversely, if we do this right, we are capable of being doctors, lawyers, even a couple legislators and police chiefs, which would be extremely helpful for obvious reasons.
Young people are our future. If we don’t empower them to go to college on the back end of treatment, it’s going to derail yet another generation of people in recovery.
At Life of Purpose, we have clinical interventions performed by therapists, but beyond that we have added an additional tier of academic interventions. These interventions are conducted by academically focused case managers. We help clean up transcripts, transfer credits, get community service hours, submit applications, enroll in classes.
In other situations, we’ve set up a deal with the university the person is coming from and then helped get them back to their school with support services set up around them. We’ve found that almost every academic institution we’ve been in contact with is extremely supportive of their students getting the help they need and getting back on track. Those schools with CRPs are generally even easier to work with in this area, as support structures are already in place.
If the student is going to FAU, PBSC, Lynn or any of the other local schools, we literally track every assignment in every class, so we can assess how they’re doing for academically focused management. Parents are always thrilled by this prospect, and we’ve found students will consistently choose returning to school earlier with support over dropping out altogether. When necessary we set students up with tutors or conduct interventions based on the student’s needs. While all of that is going on, we’re getting them involved in the CRCs at the universities. We want an unbroken chain in terms of a true continuum of care.
The entire process can take up to four or five years if they’re entering college for the first time. Of course the vast bulk of that time is spent long after we cease to provide services beyond free alumni support. One of the single strongest components to this model is that community support services are incorporated into the student’s tuition and provided by the CRPs themselves. This long-term extended care is consequently much more economically viable for families than an endless cycle of treatment episodes. What’s truly exceptional about the CRPs is that they take a substance abuse treatment client and turn them into a student; the student then becomes a role model for the next group of recovering individuals entering school, and the entire recovering community benefits from the process.
It is also worth mentioning one of the limitations of our model, which is that, while we are very dual-diagnosis capable, we are gatekeepers to a certain extent for the universities. Meaning that in the event that a client is not yet capable of succeeding in school, it is our ethical obligation to refer them to a more appropriate facility for primary care. Following the successful completion of the specialized program, whether an eating disorder, trauma, psychiatric, we can then provide support services to establish a bridge to a CRP.
Q. How do you measure success at Life of Purpose?
We measure success in sustained abstinence and GPA. But really it’s an overall package. There are so many components that make up a life. You can be abstinent and super miserable. That’s what we want to avoid. We measure everything: Do you have a part-time job, are you able to make your bed, how are your grades, do you eat healthy, do you know how to do dishes, do you know how to do laundry, how’s your personal hygiene, how are your interpersonal relationships, do you like yourself?
One of the things interesting, both at Life of Purpose and the CRCs, is that we are dealing with truly homogenous populations. We can conduct evidence-based research with high degrees of validity and reliability. With the academically focused treatment and the CRCs, they’re generally relatively similar in age, in similar stations of life and experiencing similar relations to family support. The CRCs are ideally suited for longitudinal studies [on how education affects recovery]. All research conducted on us is cutting edge by its very nature because you have a unique sample. That’s something we want as well. Toward this end, Life of Purpose donates 10 percent of its net profits, prior to ownership distributions, to endlessly fund clinical research and support the establishment of CRPs. Research affords us the ability to change the 16 billion dollar a year treatment industry that is currently producing a 90 percent relapse rate. Research affords us the ability to change legislation. Research affords us a voice. And it’s long past time we speak up for ourselves.