Putting a Face on Recovery: Recovery Month and Recovery Community Organizations

walk for recovery

I am a person in long-term recovery. What that means to me is that I have not used alcohol or drugs in 24 years. I have found great joy, love, success, and health in my recovery, and have also experienced profound loss, pain, and failure. But my recovery has given me the hope and stability to navigate life’s challenges with confidence in my many strengths. In recovery, I’ve been able to create a better life for myself, my family and my community. I am one of 23 million Americans who are living proof that recovery is possible.

I am speaking out about my recovery so that others will have the opportunity to achieve long-term recovery. When we give a voice and face to recovery, we deepen the well of hope that gives life to recovery, and we shatter the stigma of addiction. With over 20 million Americans still suffering from active substance use disorders and too many losing their struggle, we need to do more than speak up. We need to shout to the world that recovery works.

National Recovery Month

There is no better time to amplify our voices than September, which is National Recovery Month. Now in its 29th year, Recovery Month is a national observance sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to increase awareness and understanding of substance use and/or mental health disorders.

Throughout September, recovery communities in Minnesota and the rest of the nation are organizing events and activities to educate Americans that prevention, treatment, and recovery work, and to celebrate the gains made by those in recovery. Just as we celebrate health improvements made by those who are managing other chronic health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, it is essential that we reinforce the positive message that people can and do recover from substance use disorder.

Recovery Month began in 1989 as Treatment Works! Month, which honored the work of substance use treatment professionals in the field. In 1998 it expanded to include celebrating the accomplishment of individuals in recovery from substance use disorders, and then evolved again in 2011 to include all aspects of behavioral health. Today, SAMHSA’s Recovery Month site offers a toolkit and other resources that make it possible for thousands of communities to develop their own events each year.

Public events that shine a light on recovery have their origins in the mid-20th Century, when Americans started stepping out of the shadow of anonymity to advocate for better treatment and recovery resources. In 1967 The American Medical Association recognized alcoholism as a disease, and in 1970 Congress passed the Comprehensive Alcoholism Prevention and Treatment Act.  Although medical and legislative recognition that addiction is a health issue rather than a moral failing were recovery milestones, it would take more than resolutions and laws to eradicate the stigma of addiction.

Individuals in recovery often go unnoticed by the broader population, whereas active addiction is over-represented in popular media and culture. Recognizing this disparity, the National Council on Alcoholism launched Operation Understanding in 1976. The televised event brought 52 prominent Americans, including celebrities such as actor Dick Van Dyke and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, together in the nation’s capital. They spoke openly about being people in recovery and took a well-publicized swing at the negative stereotypes associated with addiction.

Minnesota upped the ante six weeks later when business and civic leader Wheelock Whitney organized Freedom Fest, a gathering at the old Metropolitan Stadium of over 30,000 people who showed up and spoke out about recovery. The event featured some of the celebrities from Operation Understanding, as well as educational booths, live music, games, a variety show, dancing, arts and crafts, face painting, concessions, and many of the other signature activities associated with recovery events today. 

The Walk for Recovery

The legacy of Minnesota’s Freedom Fest, which arguably still stands as the largest all-recovery event in the nation’s history, is found in the thousands of walks, talent shows, 5Ks, galas, music festivals and other events that will celebrate recovery around the country this September.

On September 15, Minnesota Recovery Connection (MRC) will host its eighth annual Walk for Recovery at Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. Expected to draw over 6,000 people, the Walk for Recovery is the largest all-recovery event in Minnesota and is a platform to recognize and celebrate the recovery community, including people in recovery, their family and friends, and the professionals who serve them. The Walk for Recovery is also a call for action to support and expand a broad range of recovery support services and to join together to break the stigma of addiction.

Other recovery gatherings are taking place throughout the state this month, including events sponsored by Minnesota’s three recognized Recovery Community Organizations: Minnesota Recovery Connection (Saint Paul), Recovery Is Happening (Rochester), and Minnesota Alternatives Incorporated (Spring Lake Park). For a list of Minnesota recovery events hosted by a variety of organizations, visit MRC’s website at www.minnesotarecovery.org/recovery-month.

Recovery Community Organizations

Putting a face on recovery is at the heart of MRC’s mission. As a Recovery Community Organization, we are an independent, nonprofit organization led and governed by representatives of local communities of recovery and recognized by the Association of Recovery Community Organizations. The purpose of MRC, Recovery Is Happening, Minnesota Alternatives Incorporated, and other RCOs around the country is to mobilize resources within and outside of the recovery community.

We aim to increase the prevalence and quality of long-term recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction, but we do not provide clinical treatment. Instead, we celebrate all pathways to recovery, using public education, policy advocacy, and delivery of peer-to-peer recovery support services to achieve our missions.

RCO’s are essential to shifting our paradigm from treatment to recovery. For much of the past half century, our system of care has emphasized acute treatment for a chronic condition. Unlike a broken arm or a sinus infection, a substance use disorder is not easily “fixed” with a 28-day course of treatment or medication. To recover from substance use disorder, we need a recovery-oriented system of care. The recovery ecosystem includes treatment, but it also extends into our communities, schools, families, workplaces, public policies, and far beyond.

Stigma and Other Challenges

Creating a world in which recovery is understood and promoted means disrupting the status quo, and the status quo is hardened by stigma. In a 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that Americans were more likely to view people with substance use disorders more negatively than those with mental illnesses. For example, 64 percent believed employers should be able to deny employment to people with a substance use disorder, whereas 25 percent believed employers should be able to deny employment to people with a mental illness.

The 2017 Minnesota Substance Use Reform legislation is a positive step towards a recovery-oriented system of care, but implementation is not yet fully understood or realized. Peer recovery support services, including services provided by RCOs, are an innovative component of the legislation. They have great potential to disrupt the old models and lay the foundation for lasting change in our systems of care. However, issues of funding, compliance, integrity of services, workforce development, and integration within current practices are as yet unresolved.

Minnesota needs technical solutions, such as policies, laws, and best practices that support long-term recovery for all who seek it. But we also need adaptive solutions – the willingness to dig deep within ourselves and acknowledge that there are no easy answers. Change means questioning assumptions and challenging familiar practices. As members of the recovery community, we can lead this change. We are citizens who can vote and influence public policy, and we are friends, family members, and co-workers who represent the profound truth that recovery is real and possible.

As we take part in Recovery Month events this September, the words of author and recovery advocate William White remind us of our role: “Many of us have carried a message of hope on a one-to-one basis; this new recovery movement calls upon us to carry that message of hope to whole communities and the whole culture. It is time we stepped forward to shape this history with our stories, our time and our talents.”

Let’s go out there and make some history. Celebrate Recovery Month!


Wendy Jones is a person in long-term recovery and the Executive Director of Minnesota Recovery Connection. She can be reached at wendy@minnesotarecovery.org. Find out more about MRC at www.minnesotarecovery.org.

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