SERV opens new program for individuals battling substance use disorder

As New Jersey continues to experience alarming rates of opioid use and drug-related deaths during the pandemic, SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc. is confronting the issue head-on by rolling out new services and eliminating barriers to recovery for those battling substance use disorder. 

On Monday, September 13, the organization celebrated the opening of a substance use disorder outpatient treatment program at its Community Behavioral Health Clinic in Clifton.

A true “one-stop-shop,” SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic provides community-based, integrated care for individuals with complex mental health, substance use, and physical health needs together in one convenient location.   

“At SERV, we are dedicated to reaching people with substance use disorder and providing them the services and support they need to break the cycle of their disease and live meaningful, productive lives,” said SERV Centers COO Pauline Simms, who was instrumental in bringing this new program to Passaic County.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to work on solutions to the mental health and substance use crises in our state, and this new program is another step in the right direction,” Simms added.

“We provide a truly integrated model of care at our Community Behavioral Health Clinic in Clifton, and we are incredibly excited for this opportunity to expand our services and open the door to recovery for individuals and families who have been affected by the opioid epidemic.”    

The announcement of this new program comes at a critical time for New Jersey, as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a drastic increase in the number of people struggling with mental health issues and substance use disorder.

According to state data, 1,626 New Jersey residents died from an overdose during the first half of this year.

At this rate, the state would surpass its all-time high number of drug-related deaths per year, which was set in 2020, by more than 6%. 

And New Jersey is not the only state experiencing a spike in overdose deaths.

Drug-related deaths in the United States hit a record high of 93,331 last year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 250 people have died from an overdose per day in 2021. The CDC also reports that more than 13% of Americans claim to have either started or increased substance use during the pandemic.

Experts say the effects of the pandemic have driven the surge in overdoses by heightening feelings of stress and anxiety, creating financial insecurity, forcing people to sacrifice social connections, and disrupting public health and support services.

According to Patricia Kazanowski, the Project Director for SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic, expanding access to treatment and eliminating barriers to recovery for those suffering from substance use disorder is "crucial to fighting this epidemic."

“Now, more than ever, there’s a pressing need for treatment programs in our communities,” Kazanowski said.

“Our program offers a wide range of services, including ambulatory withdrawal management for opioids, intensive outpatient treatment, and medication to support recovery.”

“Our team of professionals stand ready to provide support and healing to those who need it," she added. "We understand that the recovery journey is different for everyone, and we tailor our services to meet the needs of each person we serve.”

One major benefit of outpatient treatment is convenience.

Outpatient treatment programs are designed to accommodate outside obligations and can serve as an effective and flexible option for those looking to recover from substance use disorders.

“Overnight stays at a hospital or residential facility can be a major deterrent for individuals seeking recovery,” said LaTricia Gordon, the Director of Nursing for SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic. “In our program, however, there is greater flexibility of scheduling.”

“Individuals can continue to manage their careers and other responsibilities while undergoing outpatient treatment. Additionally, they will be able to apply the skills they learn in treatment immediately in their home setting while still having the support of the SERV team and recovering peers.”

SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic also offers on-site pharmacy services through Rapps Pharmacy, LLC. 

“Proven and safe medications like Suboxone have the potential to reduce withdrawal symptoms and save lives,” Gordon said. “Once prescribed, we will ensure individuals have access to the medication they need as soon as possible, which can be crucial during the early stages of recovery.”

The importance of National Recovery Month: what it is and why we celebrate it

In addition to expanding access to care, SERV is continuing its efforts to increase awareness and combat the stigma surrounding mental health and substance use disorders.

SERV recognizes September as National Recovery Month—a celebration of the 23 million people who recover from substance use disorder each year. Throughout the month, the organization is helping to reinforce the positive message that behavioral health is essential to overall health, that treatment is effective, and that people can and do recover.

The 2021 National Recovery Month theme is “Recovery is For Everyone: Every Person, Every Family, Every Community,” and it serves as a reminder to people with substance use disorder and those who support them that no one is alone in the journey through recovery.

“The importance of National Recovery Month cannot be understated,” said Allison Dickens, the Director of SERV’s Community Behavioral Health Clinic in Clifton. “It shines a light on people who have struggled with substance use disorder, recovered, and went on to live fulfilling lives.”

“There is a lot of emphasis put on the opioid crisis and the lives it has claimed, which is necessary, but it’s also important to remember that there are success stories—to let people know that recovery is possible and even probable with the right treatment,” she added. “Too many people are still unaware that prevention works and that mental health and substance use disorders can be treated, just like other health problems.”

Ways to support National Recovery Month

One of the most effective ways to celebrate Recovery Month is to share resources and information about substance use disorder and recovery. This month, we encourage you to take some time to learn more about substance use disorder and research the best ways to care for individuals battling this disease. Share what you learn with friends and family. Also consider sharing information about treatment programs, crisis hotlines, and these downloadable materials about preventing overdose on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn.

Another way to show your support is by attending an event. There are several themed awareness events taking place in New Jersey and virtually during National Recovery Month. For an updated list of recovery month events, check out the NJ-CARS September event calendar or the official Faces and Voices of Recovery calendar for Recovery Month events.

If you know someone in recovery or who may be struggling with substance use disorder, you should consider reaching out to them. During this stressful time of social distancing and isolation, many feel disconnected, and something as simple as a phone call or video chat can have a major impact on someone in recovery. 

Residential counselors lead weekly groups for consumers

For more than a year, the SERV team has been laser-focused on providing care to consumers while ensuring safety.

This is no easy task, but Residential Counselors Sabrina Manasse and Diane Schaefer have been up to the challenge since day one of the pandemic.

Every Friday, Sabrina Manasse leads relaxation and exercise groups for consumers in Middlesex. For these groups, she meets with consumers in their apartments, and she plans her lessons according to their individual needs.

In other words, if she feels the a consumer needs to decompress, she will focus on stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or art therapy. However, if she believes they should get out and stretch their legs or break a sweat, she will encourage physical exercise.

The classes Sabrina holds and goals she sets for consumers are always inclusive and attainable for all who participate. She also tries to make her groups as enjoyable as possible while still being productive.  

Recently, for instance, she took a group of consumers to Johnson Park in Piscataway Township. After a brisk stroll around the park, they visited an animal haven, where they saw pigs, goats, alpacas, deer, a mini horse, and many other exciting animals.

Much like Sabrina, Diane Schaefer meets with consumers at their apartments every Monday to hold her healthy cooking and baking group.

For the group, Diane brings all necessary cooking ingredients to an apartment, where she works to create a healthy recipe with consumers. After they assist her in preparing the food, the group sits down to enjoy the meal together.

With this group, the consumers benefit from learning easy recipes for healthy meals that they can continue to create on their own. Cooking and baking have also proven to be great activities for reducing stress.

After more than a decade of service, Tina Pond discusses her experience as a DSP at SERV

For Tina Pond, a Residential Counselor in SERV Achievement Centers, there is nothing more inspiring than witnessing a consumer achieve a goal and reach a new level of independence.

Tina has been a dedicated member of the SERV team for more than a decade. When we heard she recently celebrated a milestone anniversary, we reached out to learn more about her time with the organization and what has kept her so passionate about her career for so many years.

Q: When did you begin working at SERV? What attracted you to the organization?

A: I have been working at SERV for 10 years now. I started as a part-time team member. I was looking to earn some extra money doing something I enjoyed. The manager at the time knew me through one of her friends that I worked with at another job. She was very impressed with my longevity in the field (18 years) and my devotion to the individuals we serve. When I told her I was interested, she was happy to oblige. I moved to full-time staff not too long after that.  

Q: What has changed in the time you’ve been at SERV? What has stayed the same?

A: During my time at SERV, I have watched a lot of team members and residents come and go. But what has stayed the same is that the team members are extremely hard-working, caring, and have a lot of empathy for this population. They also are very supportive to each other and all of our residents. This is truly a great team of staff and residents.

Q: What is the best part of your job?  

A: It gives me great joy to see the individuals we serve succeed at even the smallest task—how excited they get and the smiles on their faces when they feel that sense of accomplishment. A lot of people in this world today take things for granted. This can be the simplest of things like eating, communicating with others, walking, or going to work every day.

The majority of the population we serve would love to do all of these things independently, but they either can’t or they need assistance and/or adaptive equipment. So, of course, it is absolutely wonderful and inspiring to see them achieve a goal or reach a new level of independence.

Q: What keeps you wanting to come to work every day?

A: Knowing that I can make a difference in someone’s life. For many of the consumers, we are family, and they look to us for support and guidance. I always try to focus on a person’s ability rather than their disability. It is my duty to help them achieve their dreams and reach their full potential.  

Q: What are some of your fondest memories?

A: Oh, I love watching one of the consumers react and get excited over fireworks on Independence Day and all of the lights on Christmas. Once, I also had a non-verbal individual give me a hug out of the blue. The individual would normally never do something like that, and it was shocking to myself and my co-workers who witnessed it. Another time, during a trip to a pumpkin patch, a consumer had picked his pumpkin and began hugging it because he was so happy that he was there. There are so many memories I could list, but these three things stand out.

Q: What are you looking forward to in the future?

A: Many more years of continuing to make a difference in the lives of those we serve.

Moving forward, making a difference: two SERV team members discuss their roles as essential care workers

Taniel Isaacs, a Vocational Skills Trainer, knelt down and took hold of D.K.’s shoelaces for what seemed like the hundredth time. “First, you want to make an X,” he said, crossing one lace over the other, “and then pull tight.”

You could hear the fatigue in Taniel’s voice. It was getting late, and he and D.K. had been at it for hours without any progress. Every time he thought he was getting through to him, something—a sound, a light, a thought—would throw off D.K.’s concentration, and they’d end up back at step one.    

At the time, Taniel had only been with SERV for two months, so he couldn’t help but question himself and his teaching methods. What am I doing wrong? he wondered. Am I not speaking clearly?

You see, this was just as much a learning experience for him as it was for D.K. While D.K. was learning how to tie his shoes, Taniel was learning the importance of patience and understanding when dealing with a consumer.

But it wasn’t until the next day that Taniel realized the true impact of the time he’d spent helping D.K.

As soon as Taniel arrived for his shift, D.K. came rushing toward him, his eyes wide with excitement. “Look—look, I did it…just like you showed me,” he said, pointing to his shoelaces, which were tied in a perfect knot.  

And now, nearly three years later, Taniel recalls this memory with D.K. as a “career-defining” moment.

“It was right then, as D.K. showed me his tied shoelaces, that I knew I was in the right place and that I wanted to devote myself to helping others,” he says. “This is such a rewarding career, and I cannot think of anything I’d rather be doing.

“The feeling I get when I see that I have made a difference in someone’s life, that I have truly helped them learn a new skill or overcome a challenge—there’s nothing like it. It’s why I’m here at SERV, and it’s what keeps me motivated to do my best and keep moving forward.”

Taniel was recently promoted to Program Supervisor in SERV Achievement’s PAC Day Habilitation Program. He says he’s excited about his new role and the opportunity to grow as a leader in the behavioral healthcare industry. He’s also looking forward to continuing to build strong relationships with consumers.

The PAC Day Habilitation Program reopened at 50% capacity in May, after closing its doors in March of 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although he is excited to return to normal operations, Taniel expects that it will pose a challenge for some consumers.  

“Some of the consumers have gotten too comfortable with being stuck at home,” he says. “They have not been able to go out and socialize in the community for over a year, and I think it may be difficult to get them back into a routine. But it’s time, and I am ready to help them as much as I can.”

Also moving up the ranks in SERV Achievement’s PAC Program is Stephanie Vil. Stephanie was promoted from Vocational Skills Trainer to Assistant Supervisor in Mercer County.

Stephanie joined the SERV team in March of 2019 as an overnight Residential Counselor at a Lawrenceville group home. Prior to that, she had served as a Residential Counselor at a number of organizations, gaining nearly a decade of experience in providing compassionate care. 

For Stephanie, SERV represented two things: change and growth.

“I felt stuck at my previous jobs. Despite many years of service as a care provider, I was never able to move up,” she says. “I knew SERV had upward-mobility and that the organization invested in its employees’ futures. So, when I saw an opportunity to join the team, I jumped on it. It was a way forward and matched up with my long-term professional goals.”

As an Assistant Supervisor, Stephanie is eager to take on new responsibilities and have a “more involved” role in the organization.  

“Serving others is my calling, and I’m thrilled to take this next step in my career,” Stephanie says, adding that she intends to take advantage of every opportunity the organization offers her.

Of particular note, Stephanie is interested in using SERV’s tuition reimbursement program to further her education. She says she has her sights set on a degree in psychology.