Adapting addiction treatment for people of African descent

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Vance sits in his chair waiting for the rest of his group members to arrive. He’s playful, skeptical and weary but game for the coming session that’s a part of his client care at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Group sessions aren’t at all unusual in addictions treatment, but this program is part of a new 21-day residential cycle for people of African descent who are working to recover from addiction issues.“There was a clear awareness of need going back a decade for services for people of African decent,” says Dennis James, deputy clinical director in CAMH’s Addictions Program, which has pioneered several initiatives over the years to reach out to diverse communities and make treatment more culturally competent. CAMH developed addiction service models for women and conducts group therapy in Spanish and Portuguese. A specialized residential treatment program for Aboriginal clients —with Aboriginal staff including an elder— rolled out in 2007-2008 with LHIN funding. Its Rainbow Services is the only one of its kind, offering inpatient and outpatient treatment for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirited, intersex, queer communities. “We’ve had a Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth for some time, but nothing for adults,” says Dennis. Now with eleven clients aged 18 to their early 50s, CAMH is trying to meet another service gap in a city where the need for health care serving diverse populations has never been greater. “Our strategy is to provide service to as many communities as we can, depending on partnerships and staff resources,” says Dennis.A variety of specialists work with Vance and the other clients — addiction therapists, social workers, occupational and recreation therapists, dietitians, peer support workers and stress management therapists and advanced practice clinicians and nurses. They’re compassionate professionals and they’ll tell you they’re not only here to treat and support clients – they also share in their emotions and lived experiences because many are also of African descent themselves.Mair Ellis, an addiction therapist, relates some of the clients’ perspectives. “They say it feels good to be part of a community ; the likeness of mind and shared experience give them a break from having to explain themselves,” she says. The feeling of togetherness creates a safe space for them to discuss things honestly and openly.“They want this to go really well,” Mair says. “They know some expect them to fail so they are driven to succeed and to leave a positive impact.” Mair is already receiving calls for cycle 2.