Helping Others And Helping Themselves: Study Shows "Peer Support" Programs Save Money

Apr 17, 2013

As Vermont confronts an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse, an old concept in recovery is getting new attention.

The idea is that people who have struggled with their own demons of addiction can provide the best advice and insight for those just starting down the road to recovery.

It’s called peer support. New research has measured the success – and the savings to the state budget – from these programs.

Visit a former pet store on Barre’s Main Street to see how a small staff and a crew of volunteers help people get their lives back together, one day, one conversation, one game of pool, at a time.

A pool game? Mike Smith, whose struggles with alcoholism have brought him trouble and jail time, said pool is part of the program.

“I came here Saturday night instead of going out drinking. We came here, had pizza, and played pool. We had a pool tournament without alcohol,” he said. “First time I’ve ever played pool without drinking, and it felt good.”

When he’s not playing pool, Smith attends workshops at the Turning Point Center in Barre in an effort to live life sober.

He also volunteers. One morning last week he was cleaning bathrooms and dusting the well-worn furniture. Smith said the work is meaningful. But more important is the help he gets from others who have been down the same road.

“This is a transition for me. This place is like a truck stop for alcoholics, if you want to call it that,” he said. “It’s a place where if you need something, if you’ve got to get your mind straight ... there’s somebody to talk with, to say ‘I’m going through this hard time right now.’ ”

Vermont has 11 recovery centers, based on the concept of peer coaching. The idea is simple: People who have been through addiction have the experience and the empathy to help others.

Tim Thresher, a 48 year old Barre resident, said the center feels like home.

“I’ve got a lot of help from each and every one of the ones that work here,” he said.

Thresher readily acknowledged the struggles he’s faced over the years, struggles that include alcoholism, recovery, relapse and homelessness. But he’s got his own apartment now, and he’s become a volunteer recovery coach himself.

“It seems to help, you know, with other people, and talking with them,” he said. “I enjoy talking with them, and telling them what I’ve gone through, where I’m at, instead of being just stuck in the shelter and not moving anywhere, not moving on.”

New research has provided evidence to show that peer recovery coaching is a cost-effective way to help addicts. The Vermont Recovery Network, which oversees the 11 centers, commissioned a study to look at outcomes. The research found that as people go through recovery coaching, about half stay out of prison. They also need less detox treatment or costly care at hospital emergency rooms. The study of 52 individuals also found that those who get the peer support are more likely to enroll in mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Bob Purvis, the director of the Barre Center, says the results are preliminary but encouraging.

“So there’s a whole range of social services and justice system costs that are showing a decrease,” he said. “You know, I haven’t had to go to court. I haven’t violated my probation, so I haven’t been locked up.”

Purvis is a former corporate lawyer, who by his own description made too much money and spiraled into alcoholism. He’s now the part time director of the Barre center, which has a budget of around $55,000 a year.

Purvis would like to provide more programs and open the center more evenings a week. But his budget doesn’t allow that.

“As far as our situation right now, we have this incredibly capable group of people who are directing our centers but we’re running on fumes. Everybody’s part time,” he said. “We’re basically punching above our weight right now. We’re wanting to prove that recovery services work and that we can do this in Vermont. And we don’t need a whole lot more money, but we need more than we’re getting now.”

The state spends from $40,000 to $50,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate in a Vermont prison, depending on the institution. So Purvis points out that if the center keeps just one person out of jail, it has paid for itself.

“When we invest in recovery services, we’re saving money,” he said.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan agreed that recovery and treatment services need to be a larger part of the state’s anti-drug efforts.

“You have people in the criminal justice system who are asking people to do certain things and they have never walked a day in the shoes of the folks who are really suffering,” he said. “So that’s why I’m a real supporter of the peer to peer recovery coaching because there’s instant credibility. They know first-hand the challenges; they know the struggle. They know better than we do what’s needed in order to keep somebody sober, to keep them stabilized.” 

The recovery center directors are hoping to roughly double their state appropriation. It’s not a big ticket item. But money is scarce this year. Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wants to find the funds.

“From my perspective that study was very important because it shows what they’re doing does work,” she said.

If the Legislature needs witnesses to make the case, lawmakers could come to Barre to talk with Tim Thresher.

After a smoke break outside, Thresher is back in the front room of the Turning Point Center. The people here have become a family he can lean on, Thresher said, adding that he knows of others who could benefit from Turning Point programs.

“If you look out there on the street, you see a lot of people, a lot of those could be helped right here,” he said. “If they step in the door, it starts here, I believe.”