Inside Athena: The Oxford Substance Use Clinician Changing Peoples’ Lives
HAVERHILL, M.A. — Joe Hannon is using his own life experience to better residents’ lives at The Oxford Rehabilitation & Health Care Center in Haverhill. He has been a Substance Use Clinician at the Essex County center since November 2018.
Before moving into his current role, Hannon, who received a Substance Use Counseling Certificate from Northern Essex Community College, had a whole different career. He spent 15 years in hospitality, then became an E.M.T., and eventually started working with elder services. That was before The Oxford started accepting patients battling the disease of addiction. Hannon would help people find treatment, and then The Oxford opened its doors to offer that assistance.
“I was coming in here to follow the clients and that’s when it came to my attention that they were hiring a Substance Use Clinician,” Hannon said.
He recalls wanting to help others at a young age. He had a vision as a child to turn his garage into a restaurant, but not charge for the food. The purpose would be to feed those who were hungry. His young dreams to make an impact on his community have followed him into adulthood. When he joined The Oxford, there were only a dozen patients with the addiction. Now, there are more than 70 getting the help they need.
“I try to instill hope in the residents and I try to educate the staff,” Hannon said. “I review all of the files for any admissions, determine if they’ve been diagnosed with the disease of addiction or if there’s some signs or symptoms present that may allude to the fact that they do.”
When someone is admitted into the center, he spends at least an hour with them to understand what their problems are and establish goals. He likes to connect them with residents who have been living at The Oxford so they don’t feel alone. The center offers recovery groups every day of the week, of which Hannon does five of them. They have meetings every morning. Twice a week there are other activities to engage the residents so they know they are not alone. On Tuesdays, there is a recovery movie night followed by a group discussion. On Fridays, the team sets up games for the residents to play so they can interact.
“I feel the opposite of addiction is connection. Addiction is a profound disconnect from yourself, from family, from community so the goal is to try to get the residents to interact and support with each other,” Hannon said.
Hannon, who holds a master’s degree in social work from Salem State University, explains how many people don’t understand what addiction is and what causes it. He runs educational courses for the staff at The Oxford so they can better understand how to work, communicate, and help people battling addictions at the center. That includes de-escalation training with their body language and their words. He said they do this because they want the residents they are caring for to know they matter and have worth.
“We had that six-session mandatory training last year so I’m doing a refresher on creating a therapeutic environment, how we can use ourselves as agents of change, how every staff member has the opportunity to provide therapy just for the way they engage with the residents,” he said. “If we can let them know that we’re compassionate and we care, that we understand and we’re not judging them, that in and itself is therapy.”
Hannon also oversees security and resident safety at the center. Some residents receive methadone as part of their recovery journey and Hannon helps facilitate that transportation for the person.
Not everyone is willing to accept the help, Hannon admits. Others are. No matter what their acceptance is, Hannon said it’s important to build a rapport with them so they know they can trust the team working to better their lives. One way he does that is by drawing on what successes they have had in the past and how they did that. If they haven’t been successful, what strengths do they have that can create those positive moments.
“We try to understand the disease and understand that the underlying emotion associated with our residents when they first get here is fear. Fear is a primary emotion, and if we can make them feel safe, if we can create a safe emotional space, if we can create a safe physical space, and provide empathy and hopefully listen, we’re going to prevent them from escalating to anger,” he said.
The work Hannon does is personal. The Quincy native has been in remission for 20 years but he doesn’t make that a part of the residents’ recovery journey. If they ask, he will tell. But he then has a question himself, “How would that help you?” He doesn’t want the focus of the person’s recovery to be shifted onto his. He may use terminology where it’s clear he had battled the addiction, and he uses his decades-long success to show that treatment does work.
Hannon doesn’t stop helping others when they are ready to go. He helps find them long-term, stable housing. The reason for what he does, Hannon said, is to instill hope and let them know they have support and worth. He said the change isn’t only because of him, but the whole team at The Oxford and Athena Health Care Systems.
“I genuinely enjoy what I do. I leave each day feeling as though I mattered,” he said. “If I can be the person just to get them through the day without leaving and using it was a success.”
His work has mattered. Not only does he receive appreciation from the residents for his support and the services offered at the center, but he was recognized by U.S. Congresswoman Lori Trahan of Massachusetts third congressional district. In April, Hannon and Therapeutic Recreation Director Donna Byrne were presented Certificates of Special Congressional Recognition by Sophia Gross, the Outreach Liaison for the congresswoman. “Your dedication to offering compassionate care to those with substance use will leave a lasting impact on the Merrimack Valley and beyond,” it read. Hannon said the recognition was shocking and nice, but notes there is much more work left to be done.