Mental health and addictions is a serious public health issue in Canada. Statistics show that one in five Canadians have experienced a mental health or addiction problem.(1) In Saskatchewan, this would mean more than 200,000 individuals are affected to some degree.
The concept of "recovery" is well known and widely embraced by practitioners, service providers and policy makers in Canada and around the world.(2) However, it’s often referred to in literature as a “process” or a “journey”, implying that being “in recovery” does not mean that symptoms of mental health problems or addictions issues are completely gone. Rather, recovery is a continuum and is experienced as moving through and beyond the limitations of one’s illness towards improved health and functioning.
But what if your profession is counselling other people with a mental health or addictions problem? How does your own recovery affect your performance, effectiveness and identity as a counsellor?
For Dr. Gabriela Novotna, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Regina (U of R), the personal recovery experience of substance abuse counsellors is one of the most distinctive aspects of what she sees as a unique specialty within health services. With 15 years of experience in mental health and addictions as a clinician, researcher and academic, she became aware of this specific group of counsellors a few years ago while doing postdoctoral studies.
“We have realized just recently how valuable they can be in relating to their clients, but at the same time, how vulnerable they can become because of their own experiences and conditions,” she says. During her postdoctoral training prior to joining the U of R, she conducted a small pilot study with a group of managers in recovery, which helped to drive her interest into further researching counsellors with this attribute.
People with personal, lived experience of addictions are now delivering services across the treatment landscape, be it in residential settings, outpatient programs or community outreach. However, the prevalence of counsellors in recovery is much higher in the prairies – especially Saskatchewan – than anywhere else in Canada. In fact, a national survey shows Saskatchewan has the highest proportion of substance abuse counsellors in recovery, at 46 per cent. By comparison, the proportion in Ontario and Quebec is about 20 per cent.
Even though this group represents a significant component of the addiction workforce in Saskatchewan, there is a lack of research about this cohort. Novotna received a 2017-18 SHRF Establishment grant to study this unique group, investigating how their recovery status affects their professional identity and impacts their counselling performance and effectiveness.
To address this gap in knowledge, her research will include interviewing counsellors to determine how to capitalize on their lived experience. “I would like to give this community the opportunity to speak and have a voice in this project,” she states. Novotna’s research goal is that her findings will allow her to make recommendations that will influence the development of policies to assist and support these counsellors through their personal and professional journeys. She also hopes to inform the education and training that goes into the certification of counsellors at the provincial and national level.
Delivering effective counselling requires good counsellors, and “we need to understand who these particular services providers are and what their needs are,” says Novotna. “They deserve our attention and deserve to be heard,” she continues. “I think my research can contribute to a better understanding of what we can do for them and how we can support them. We cannot really provide good services if we don’t have service providers that are well-trained, well-supervised and supported.”
Helping counsellors in recovery to integrate their lived experience into their treatment, while supporting their own recovery needs, could ultimately mean better outcomes for these counsellors and those they treat.