Genetics for Parenting Hacks: Understanding Your Child’s Blueprint

Reduce The Stigma - Recovery Conversations with Dr. Danielle Dick

Picture of Dr. Danielle Dick, author of Child Code, who discusses genetics, parenting hacks, mental health, and substance use
Background image of DNA at a cellular level with a quote by Dr. Danielle Dick about genetic risk factors and that DNA is not destiny.

Did you know that being aware of your child’s genetics can be a parenting hack? Or, maybe you’re curious about the truth of genetic risk factors or predispositions for mental health or substance use disorders? This article explores the growing role of genetics in understanding child behavior and improving parenting strategies as well as how genetics plays a role in mental health and addiction. It highlights the importance of acknowledging genetics to:

  • Reduce stigma around mental health and substance use disorders in children.
  • Foster a shift from “one-size-fits-all” parenting to individualized approaches.

The interview with Dr. Danielle Dick, Director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center, and author of The Child Code, dives into these key points:

  • Genetics and Environment: Dr. Dick emphasizes the interplay between genetics (around 50%) and environmental factors (around 50%) in shaping a child’s behavior.
  • The Myth of Perfect Parenting: She debunks the myth that perfect parenting guarantees perfect outcomes. Genetics play a significant role, and acknowledging this can alleviate pressure on parents.
  • Tailored Parenting: Dr. Dick discusses her book, “The Child Code,” which explores how understanding a child’s unique genetic makeup can inform more effective parenting strategies.
  • Normalcy vs. Impairment: She guides parents in identifying when a child’s behavior becomes a cause for concern, prompting the need for professional help.
  • The Future of Genetics in Treatment: The interview explores the potential of genetic risk scores to identify children at higher risk for substance use disorders and mental health challenges, paving the way for more targeted prevention and intervention strategies.

Click here for the episode’s full transcript.

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Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:00)
While genetics have been recognized as playing a part in substance use disorders, as well as mental health and behavioral health, we’re still gaining awareness as to exactly how they’re playing a role. And in this conversation with Dr. Danielle Dick, we get to learn about the way that genetics can really be instrumental in the prevention, intervention, and treatment of substance use disorders, mental health, behaviors, all these different components that go into who a person is and how they can go about living their best life.

Stay tuned as we continue to reduce the stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:42)
and welcome to Recovery Conversations. Today’s conversation is with Dr. Danielle Dick, Director of the Rutgers Addiction Research Center in the Brain Health Institute, the Greg Brown Endowed Chair in Neuroscience, Professor of Psychiatry at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and the author of The Child Code. That’s a lot of very formal titles there, Dr. Dick. Can you please share with us who you really are?

Danielle Dick (02:08)
Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today, Whitney. Thank you so much for inviting me on. This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. So my primary day job is that I run the Rutgers Addiction Research Center, which is the largest addiction research center in the world. There’s actually nearly 150 researchers who are spanning all the way from basic science,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:13)
Thank you for coming.

Danielle Dick (02:34)
through to studying epidemiology, etiology. So what causes some people to be more at risk? What do patterns and consequences of substance use look like across time to treatment and recovery all the way through to policy? And so we really kind of span the translational spectrum, which I think speaks to the need to bring people.

who come from a variety of different perspectives and backgrounds and who are looking at this really complex problem from different angles so that we can work together to ultimately reduce the burden of addiction in our society.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (03:12)
That’s absolutely, by having so many different partners involved in looking at each facet, it’s really looking at that whole person as well as the systems that they’re within. And what led you down the pathway that, you know, eventually led to your work at Rutgers?

Danielle Dick (03:31)
So I am someone who is always interested in how can I have an impact and how can I make a difference as I think many of us in this field are. And I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia 25 plus years ago. And I was working on a psychiatric unit. And at that time, I thought I wanted to go into clinical practice. I was going to go on and become an MD. And

What I really became frustrated by, you know, concerned about was the revolving door aspect of psychiatry, that people will get better and then, you know, we would essentially patch them up. They would go back out and then we’d see them back again on the psychiatric unit. And it really drove my interest and passion in research. So how can we better understand?

what’s causing these problems so that we can prevent them before they start, and how can we develop better treatments, better support people in recovery. And so, you know, I developed my own program of research, but as you become more senior, then I also became interested in how at a programmatic level do we bring people together to do really interesting things that we can’t do on our own. And so that’s how I ended up directing this large research center.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (04:57)
Again, it speaks to just the need that we need to recognize every component about the disease, but also about the person by bringing all those. I’m curious, you know, addiction research center that is clearly doing a lot, right? Looking at systems, looking at prevention you mentioned, what have been some of your favorite collaborations with other professions through your research?

Danielle Dick (05:26)
Yeah, so maybe I’ll start with a project that we’re working on right now, which is we know that individuals who are in treatment are a really heterogeneous group. We know that people start using substances for different reasons. They probably carry different genetic risks, different environmental and sociocultural factors that led to having challenges. And so then an individual shows up at treatment with all these differences.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (05:30)

Danielle Dick (05:55)
And yet very often, even with best practice treatment, we’re essentially kind of trying to figure out what’s gonna work best for an individual. Most of medicine now is a one size fits all. We try, here, this is what works best for most people. And then we kind of, is it working for you, not working for you? Well, we’re gonna try something else here and see if that works better. This whole process is incredibly costly. It’s costly to the individual who’s suffering, it’s costly to the family.

It’s costly to our healthcare system. And of course we know that it’s true of all of medicine, but it’s alive and well in substance use and mental health disorder treatments. And so what we’re launching right now is at Rutgers, we’re actually launching what we call the research community partnership. And so one of the things that I dislike about our field is that we are so siloed, even when we all are working on,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (06:53)

Danielle Dick (06:54)
substance use problems and challenges and want to fix them and make things better. We’ve got researchers over here and candidly even researchers are siloed in terms of the genetics folks are separate from the folks who study psychology or who study environmental factors or community factors. And then we’ve got our clinicians who are in the trenches working who often are not talking to the researchers and vice versa. And then we’ve got our patients who, you know,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (06:56)

Danielle Dick (07:23)
very often are not connected to this whole network as well. And so the research community partnership, the whole idea is how do we bring together researchers, clinicians, and patients and family members, and candidly, the broader community of anybody who cares about this, so that we can all be a part of the process of discovery and making things better. And so by that, what we’re essentially doing, and we’re piloting it right now with some of our Rutgers,

clinics, but the hope is that soon we’re going to start opening it up to more and more clinics. We’re going to invite patients and family members, friends, whomever to sign up to be a part of the partnership. And you essentially provide your contact information. And what you are agreeing to is, I want to be contacted by researchers. I want to understand more about and potentially contribute to the process of discovery. And so.

You can fill out short surveys and you can also agree for those who are interested to share their health records. And that increases the chance that you’ll get selected for studies because of course some studies are looking for individuals who smoke or other studies might be looking at individuals who have a history of depression in addition to substance use challenges, et cetera. And so the whole idea is that you’ll get invited to different studies.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (08:29)

Danielle Dick (08:52)
you can agree to be a part or not of anyone that interests you. And then regardless of whether or not you’re participating in projects, we’re going to essentially be giving newsletters, sending out newsletters on a semi -regular basis with here’s what’s new in addiction, here’s what we’re finding, you know, other kind of events and helpful pieces of information for individuals and families. And of course we want the clinicians to be a part of this.

So we will be working with them on the research projects, the research findings, as well as the patients and our community advisory board. And so it’s really kind of a, the idea is to create this partnership that brings us all together in being invested in, you know, discovery of new treatments, new preventions, how do we better support people and getting that information out to people, out to patients, community, to

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (09:41)

Danielle Dick (09:51)
clinicians and to having clinicians and community members having more interface with the researchers. So our research can also be more impactful, more meaningful as well. So we’re starting that and the very first set of individuals who are enrolling, we’re actually inviting them to be part of we have a cutting edge neuroimaging center. And so it would be to come in and essentially do brain scans.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:15)

Danielle Dick (10:19)
We have a large genetics group. That’s my own particular area of research. So to give a saliva sample, you know, you spit in a tube and we can genotype to essentially look at different genetic risk factors and then to essentially complete surveys, some of which we’re doing in kind of real time using digital data collection through Fitbits, through, you know, quick surveys that you might do throughout the day on your phone.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:23)
Mm -hmm.

Danielle Dick (10:48)
And all of this is looking at trying to figure out who responds best to treatment. So can we help use all of these advances to understand who needs maybe some additional supports? Are certain types of treatment better for certain individuals? And with the digital data collection piece, how can we real time identify individuals when they might be struggling?

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:03)

Danielle Dick (11:15)
And so it’s not just, you know, your regular groups, which are Tuesdays at 10 a or whatnot, but we could get help to an individual as they are at that sort of crisis point or starting to feel unsettled and where they are in their recovery. Exactly. So that is just one example of the kinds of projects that were really spearheading through the center that bring together all of these different components. And the piece I actually,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:21)

before there’s a full decline, right? Wow.

Danielle Dick (11:45)
didn’t mention there is that we have a whole neuroscience group who does work in model organisms because as we identify genes and brain circuits, we also then want to be able to use that to better understand how they work. We can of course do things in animals that we can’t do in human brains. And so to be able to develop better pharmaceutical targets as well too. So that.

kind of spans that whole, all the way from basic science through to our patients in our clinics.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:19)
First and foremost, I want to sign up for a newsletter if I can, because this sounds amazing and really is eliminating a lot of barriers between the individuals who are living maybe with substance use or mental health and their treatment providers and the knowledge base. Because, you know, as a counselor, as well as someone with mental health diagnoses, with for me, you know, it’s finding a valid and reputable source.

But I’ve also been frustrated at times because as you would know better than me, the publication process can take years, research can take years. And so then the dissemination can be delayed. And it sounds like you’re really expediting and accelerating getting the information to the people who need it and then can apply it either to patients or can use it to advocate for potential different approaches for their own treatment or a loved one’s treatment. That’s amazing.

Danielle Dick (13:18)
That’s one of the things that I’ve become really passionate about over my career. I sometimes jokingly call it my mid -career crisis, where I realized that as researchers, the vast majority of our time is spent talking to other researchers. So we write up our scientific studies and results for publication in scientific journals that are read by other researchers. We go to academic conferences and present our work to other researchers.

And so I had this moment where I thought, how is this work actually getting into the hands of people who can use it? Because in all of my grants, a lot of my time is spent writing grants to the National Institutes of Health, talking about, you know, here is the cutting edge kind of next things we need to do to better understand and address substance use disorders. And in all of those grants, I have some sentence about,

My own work, as I mentioned, is in genetics, better understanding how genetic and environmental influences come together to contribute to why some people are more at risk than others will ultimately help us develop better prevention, intervention, and treatment. And then I realized, but all the people who are doing prevention, intervention, and treatment, they’re not reading genetics journals, you know? I mean, at best, maybe they’re reading journals that are specifically talking about new treatments or treatment studies.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:39)

Danielle Dick (14:46)
But we are so in our own worlds and clinicians of course are so in the trenches. You know, very often we know, you know, overworked, understaffed, they don’t have time to be going out and reading all the, you know, publications that are coming out constantly. And so one of the things that I really try to do is to bring research to the public in ways that are understandable. And so if you go to my website,

DanielleDick .com. I write a variety of blogs for Psychology Today and Medium, and I will put, you know, talks that I’ve given to communities and other sorts of things up there. So the whole idea is how do we get research out? One of the areas that this has come up is when I became a parent, I discovered that so much of the popular press parenting information that’s out there, which candidly,

I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to because I study kids’ development. But when I became a parent and I started to pay attention, I realized how much of the research was not getting out there, especially in my particular area, which is genetic and environmental influences on kids’ behavior, on really all of our outcomes. But of course, our genes don’t just show up when we’re adults. You know, they start influencing kids’ behavior early on.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:07)

Danielle Dick (16:13)
And so that led me to write my book, The Child Code, which came out in 2021 from Penguin Random House. And it really is all in service of how do we get research to people who can use it.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:29)
And I’m glad that you brought up the child code because, you know, my awareness with it is that it’s really similar to what you were talking about with finding, you know, ways to best serve the individual, whether it’s at a genetic level or what have you. The child code talks about how to best parent a child in a way, based off of their maybe genetic predispositions, but also how they, their behaviors present.

Can you speak a little bit more about how you’re using genetics to really drive individualized care, individualized parenting?

Danielle Dick (17:09)
Absolutely. So one of the things that I found so eye -opening when I became a parent is that I saw my highly intelligent, capable, largely mom friends, if their children were not turning out to be the perfect, dreamy human beings we all imagine having before we have children, they were riddled with self -doubt. And so especially if their children were struggling,

whether that is just kind of what we, I might call normative struggles that parents have or struggles that are truly associated with, you know, mental health or substance use challenges. There was a lot of self doubt, a lot of what am I doing wrong? What did I do to cause this in my child or, or what did I not do that my child is struggling? And.

I also found myself raising the high risk child that I study, the irony, highly impulsive, highly emotional. And so for me, knowing the research was so helpful, but I looked around and I saw how many people didn’t know the research and were really struggling as parents. And a lot of my research is really on how much of

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:08)

Danielle Dick (18:27)
children’s behavior, how much of our life outcomes is influenced by our genes in addition to our environmental factors. And so for almost any behavior that you’re interested in, whether it’s substance use disorders or whether it’s impulsivity in children or anxiety, you know, I sort of jokingly say the rule of thumb is that it’s going to be about 50 -50, meaning it’s about

50 % heritable and about 50 % environmental factors. And to be clear, what that doesn’t mean is that for any one individual, you know, half of the reason, for example, that I’m impulsive or that I’ve developed, you know, a substance use disorder is because of my genes and the other half is because of my environment. What it means is at the population level, if you, when you look around and you go, why are some kids more impulsive?

and others are not. Why are some kids really anxious and others are not? Why do some people develop depression or substance use problems and others don’t? About half of the reason is differences in their DNA and about half of the reason is differences in their environments. And, you know, as when it comes to our parenting, it’s as if we have forgotten that genetics piece of things.

And so it’s like we double down on, okay, you know, it’s all on me. I’ve got this. And, and I think that’s a real problem for two big reasons. The first is what I sometimes call the parenting myth, which is the idea that if you are just a good enough parent, if you just do all the things right, if you read all the books and you watch your, you know, Instagram favorite mom influencers and all the things.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (19:49)

Danielle Dick (20:18)
that you’re going to be able to parent that child, you know, right into the Ivy league school or the Nobel prize. And that’s just, there’s no evidence that we have that any environmental influences have that much of an impact. Unfortunately, the environmental influences that sort of single -handedly seem to have a huge impact are adverse environmental influences, right? Are severe traumas and things of that sort. But.

The evidence that we can super parent our children into like extremely great outcomes, there’s no evidence for that. And by sort of whether it’s conscious or unconscious adopting this, I really need to be the best possible parent for my child to have the best possible outcome. You know, it creates a lot of pressure on us. We can create a lot of pressure on our kids who feel the weight of our expectations.

And I think the other piece is that it can contribute to this culture of judgment. This, you know, you see that toddler that’s throwing a fit or the teenager that’s talking back and you, you know, look at that teenager or toddler and you look at their parent, you think that parent really needs to, you know, fill in whatever your favorite parenting advice is. And of course, substance use and mental health challenges is an area where we don’t need any more stigma. We don’t need any more judgment.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:21)


Danielle Dick (21:43)
We need to support people who are struggling. We need to support parents who have kids who are struggling. And so I think that by kind of ignoring the role that genes play in kids’ outcomes, it contributes to more of this kind of judgment and stigma. And the second piece is that I think by ignoring the role of genetics, we also miss an opportunity. And this is really a lot of what the book is about.

to tailor our parenting to what will work best for each of our unique kiddos. And so I just talked a little bit ago about how treatment is an area where we try to do one size fits all. We know that doesn’t work very well, that everyone has their own path to having developed substance use challenges and we need to be thinking about how we can do more tailored treatment. With kids, our kids are all unique.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:19)

Mm -hmm.

Danielle Dick (22:42)
They all have brains that are wired in different ways, literally from their genetic codes. And so the idea that there is one best way to parent or one right way to parent, or that if you just follow all these things, your child is going to respond in just the right way. That also totally ignores the fact that they’re all different. But if we pay attention to those differences and really the book is a little bit about.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:46)

Danielle Dick (23:11)
kind of the science behind how we know how much genes influence kids behavior, how those genes influence their behavior, which also shapes their environments. But it’s got surveys for parents to figure out where their child falls on these kind of three big genetically influenced dimensions. And then it walks through, okay, depending on where your child falls on each of these dimensions, here’s what we know about parenting strategies that work better.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:26)

Danielle Dick (23:41)
or worse, for kids with different temperamental characteristics.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:46)
There’s just so much there that is powerful in and of itself. And I imagine going to be very influential on the development moving forward of the field. Where we are today, obviously, 30 years ago, genetics as part of substance use treatment or mental health treatment was not on the board. We were just starting to recognize genetics in general and seeing from a.

physical health perspective was more recognition, which, you know, it’s more acceptable to have a physical health diagnosis or disease. And so you talked about that stigma and it made me think about, you know, the sense of failure that I’ve heard many parents share whenever a child struggles with mental health or with substance use and the fear of asking for help.

because you don’t want to be looked at as a bad parent, going back to you saying, you know, not recognizing the role of genetics. And so we’ve known now for a while that, you know, substance use and mental health, of course, are diseases. And so I’m curious at what you see as the role of recognizing genetics more and more in these areas with behaviors and things like that, how that can facilitate more

willingness or openness to asking for help.

Danielle Dick (25:17)
Absolutely. So I’ll talk first about parenting and then I will talk about what we know and how I think it can impact treatment as well in terms of how far genetics has come. So on the parenting front, one of the questions I frequently get asked from parents is, is this normal? They’re trying to figure out, is my child quote, just impulsive or do they have ADHD? Are they just more anxious or?

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:30)

Danielle Dick (25:47)
Do they have clinical anxiety? And the question, is this normal? I tell parents is the wrong question to be asking because what we know is that behavior is distributed like a bell curve. So whether you’re looking at impulsivity or depression or substance use or anxiety, it’s distributed like a bell curve, meaning that there are going to be some people who are very low.

lots of folks who are in the middle, and it is normal to have some people who are high. The better question to think about is, is this causing impairment in the child’s life? So is it harming their relationship with you, their relationship with their peers? Is it causing them challenges in school? That’s kind of the trifecta. Is it interfering with parents, peers, and with teachers in schooling?

And if the answer to any of those is yes, and in particular to multiple of those, then it is always a good idea to seek help. In fact, the people that I know that are most willing and likely to seek help quickly are other psychologists and psychiatrists because we get, it is so hard to figure these things out with our kids and raising kids is hard and we can all use some extra help. And so,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (27:06)

Danielle Dick (27:15)
the kind of like, you know, we all have to make determinations about, gosh, is this just the sniffles? And so they’re going to stay in bed or do I need to take them to the pediatrician? There’s a little bit of that judgment, but, you know, when you’re really worrying, it always behooves you to call the pediatrician. It always behooves you to go out and seek help for mental health concerns that you have in your child as well, too, mental or behavioral health.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (27:22)

Danielle Dick (27:44)
So there’s the parenting piece. On the treatment side of things, we have learned a ton in the last decade, even in the last five years, it’s advanced radically about how our genes influence risk for substance use disorders. So we’ve known for some time now that genes do play an important role. I mentioned earlier that about half of the variability between

Why some people are more likely to develop problems than others is due to differences in the DNA sequence they were born with. But what we have been able to do is to, over just the last few years, start identifying the specific genes involved. And so what we know is there is no gene for substance use disorders or depression or anxiety, despite what you sometimes hear in the…

popular press, there’s no gene for any of these complex outcomes. Instead, what we know is that there are likely thousands of genetic variants, each of which just have a small effect on its own. So we now can scan the entire genome and really gene identification at its simplest is you’re comparing individuals who have the disease.

with those who don’t, that’s true whether you’re looking at a cancer or substance use disorder, or you’re comparing individuals who are high on an outcome, impulsivity, or how frequently people use as compared to who are lower. And you’re asking, are individuals who are affected or who are higher more likely to carry a particular version at this location in the genome than individuals who are unaffected?

And so we do this across millions of locations in the genome. We have now identified literally more than a thousand and we can essentially add those up, weight them by how big of an effect. They’re all tiny effects, but how tiny of an effect they have. And we can add that up to create what is often called a polygenic score or a polygenic risk score.

So we can now create those for any one individual. Right now in the, I lead a big international gene identification consortium. And so the most predictive scores that come out of this group that I lead account for about 10 % of the variance in outcomes. And, you know, comparatively,

That’s a lot. Now that’s still 90 % that’s unaccounted for. It’s the environment, it’s other genes we haven’t found yet. But it can certainly, you know, give a sense of are individuals at higher risk, lower risk, or average risk. And not only that, but we have learned a tremendous amount about what are those different genetically influenced risk pathways. And here’s what I mean by that.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (30:28)

Danielle Dick (30:56)
I find that when I talk to people about, you know, our genes influence why some people are more likely to develop problems with addiction than others, people will say, yeah, yeah. But what they’re imagining is that some people’s bodies just respond to a drug in a way that makes it much more addictive, that they’re much more likely to become dependent physiologically on that drug. And there is some small truth to that.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (31:13)

Danielle Dick (31:23)
There are some genes that are involved in drug metabolism that influence, you know, how your body responds to alcohol, to nicotine, to opiates, but that is actually just one teeny part. That is the minority of that 50 % of genetic differences between us. The vast majority of the ways that our genes influence

why some people are more at risk than others, isn’t about the way bodies respond to a drug. It’s about the way brains are wired. And so what we talk about is two big genetically influenced risk pathways. One of them is what we call the externalizing pathway. And it is related to how our brains process rewards and consequences. It’s related to, you know, things that we call impulsivity and sensation seeking. And some people are

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (32:15)

Danielle Dick (32:20)
more excited and driven by, you know, that, that what we might sometimes call the rush, the high, the what you want right now. Other people have brains that immediately go, is this a good idea? Let me think through all the consequences. And we know that people that are more prone to kind of the here and now, the novelty seeking, the fun seeking, that that is, by the way, it’s not a bad thing in and of itself.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (32:48)

Danielle Dick (32:49)
Entrepreneurs, CEOs, fighter pilots, all tend to be more risk -taking, more sensation -seeking. But we also know that it can lead individuals to be more likely to experiment and to use drugs in risky ways and be more likely to develop problems, particularly when combined with other challenging life circumstances or other comorbid mental health challenges.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (33:03)
Mm -hmm.

Danielle Dick (33:17)
So that’s kind of one big pathway. It’s more of the how our brains respond to reward. And then the other genetically influenced pathway is what we sometimes call the internalizing. So internalizing meaning kind of what’s going on inside of you. Externalizing is the way you interact with the world. The internalizing pathway is related to how brains are wired toward anxiety or toward worry. And we know we all differ on this too. Some people are just more…

prone to anxiety sensitivity toward worry. And if left unchecked or without the skills to manage or cope with that, then it can lead to using substances as a way to cope and developing problems in that sense. And so, you know, I think that by having learned so much about these different genetically influenced risk pathways and where we’re going, of course, now is the ability to also

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (34:03)

Danielle Dick (34:15)
help people understand which areas of genetic risk they’re carrying. Although even right now, you know, I find when I’m talking to individuals, especially who are in the recovery community or who are in treatment about this, they immediately start identifying, yeah, that’s me, right? I am the one who I, you know, I was impulsive from the time I was young, I had ADHD, and then all of a sudden in high school, I was trying new things. I started running with the wrong crowd.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (34:33)
Mm -hmm, right.

Danielle Dick (34:43)
Maybe then there were some challenging circumstances at home or other things that sort of led to their becoming more involved in substance use. Or other people will go, yeah, I was the person who was always anxious. I never felt comfortable in my own skin. And then all of a sudden I became an adult. I discovered that, wow, substances really took the edge off. And of course, these pathways are not mutually exclusive. You can carry risk across multiple of them.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (35:14)
and I imagine they influence each other as well.

Danielle Dick (35:14)

Absolutely. And of course, where I think that even today, this is relevant for treatment is because by understanding something and by being proactive about talking with people about this and, you know, having them think critically about it, about what are the risk factors that you carry? How can you not just address the substance use problem, but how can you think about, OK, this is a natural tendency that I have?

How do I channel that for good, right? How do you maybe channel those impulsive tendencies into other things? Or how do I develop skills and strategies to manage some of those tendencies or to manage, for example, anxiety or things so that I don’t stop using the substance of choice, for example, but all of a sudden now I’m gambling or I’m engaging in risky sex.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (35:49)

Danielle Dick (36:13)
or I am now worrying all the time and that’s making my recovery even harder to maintain. When we think about those underlying genetically influenced risk factors, we can help people really think about how are they going to achieve holistic recovery, not just stopping the substance that might be causing problems, but really promoting their health and wellbeing.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (36:39)
I, that, that’s really getting at an up the river solution, right? You know, there’s, I, we know here or here, I’m hearing the prevention piece of we can identify you are at increased risk. That right there is a significant, you know, knowledge to have to be able to be proactive. And I’m hearing because we’re able to identify what specific components of your DNA, of your genetics,

lead you to have that risk, we can help build up those skills so that not only do you have to be worried that if you engage in substance use, you’ll develop an addiction, but also what other areas of life would be positively benefited by building up those skills, being able to harness the impulsivity. So it’s not even just your work is going to positively impact substance use prevention, treatment, and long -term recovery.

it’s also going to impact just the person’s general wellbeing and ability to be successful.

Danielle Dick (37:41)
That’s the goal.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (37:43)
Wow. I, as someone who could never comprehend genetics, I am just so interested. And I’m already, of course, following you everywhere. But how can people follow you? How can they connect with you? Before we wrap up, I want to get that information across.

Danielle Dick (38:05)
Absolutely. So my personal website is danieldick .com. You can find a whole series of different resources on there that I try and make accessible to non -scientists. The Rutgers Addiction Research Center is at addiction .rutgers .edu. If you want to learn more about kind of the broader science. I’m also on Instagram, Twitter, now X, Facebook at Dr. Danielle Dick.

And you can find my book at thechildcode .com or Amazon or other places where books are sold.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (38:43)
I hope everyone goes and starts following you because I think that the biggest takeaway for me has been the plethora of information that is now accessible to the average person. And that really, that is what your work is, is how do we take what has been known at this academic level and translate it to people being able to inform their lives and the life, you know, working with their loved ones as well. And so that has been my big takeaway.

What though would you, if people only take one thing away from this conversation we’ve had, what would you like them to walk away remembering?

Danielle Dick (39:21)
That’s such a good question and so hard to narrow it down to just one. But maybe I will leave folks with this quote from one of my genetic counseling friends. She’s kind of the, they’re the world’s sort of leading genetic counselor for psychiatric outcomes. And they always say, your genes are not your fault and they’re also not your fate.

And so as someone who studies genetic influences on behavior, I really love that. You know, we don’t want to ignore the fact that we all have different genetic dispositions. We’re all at risk for something. For some of us, it’s substance use and mental health challenges. For other people, it will be cardiovascular diseases or cancers. And so by understanding our genetic risk factors, we can both do something about them,

We’re not destined to develop problems. DNA is not destiny. I hope that we can use this research to really harness its potential in prevention, intervention, and treatment, in preventing problems before they happen, in helping people better support their treatment and their recovery process. But I also think it’s really critical that we remind people.

that just because you carry genetic risk does not mean you are destined to develop problems. So thank you so much for having me, Whitney. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (40:57)
Thank you so much. I think that everyone’s going to enjoy this. And as I said, please go follow and educate yourself, share with others, because this is the way that we can really make things happen. Because whenever you have more knowledge, you can better advocate for yourself and for your loved ones. So please, everyone, share the awareness of what you’ve gained today.

pass along the podcast episode and the ways to connect with Dr. Dick to anyone who may benefit because sharing this information is how we continue to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, substance use disorder, behavioral disorders, all these things that really, as we’re learning, comes down to a big part of our genetics. So thank you so much for being with us today.

Danielle Dick (41:47)
Thank you.

Reduce The Stigma – Recovery Conversations with Dr. Danielle Dick Did you know that being aware of your child’s genetics can be a parenting hack? Or, maybe you’re curious about the truth of genetic risk factors or predispositions for mental health or substance use disorders? This article explores the growing role of genetics in understanding […]

Continue reading "Genetics for Parenting Hacks: Understanding Your Child’s Blueprint"
Purple question marks in the background with the Reduce The Stigma logo in the foreground.

Reduce The Stigma: Help Us name Our New Series

Contest to Name the New Reduce The Stigma Series

naming contest reduce the stigma

Mental health, addiction, drug use, recovery, struggle… these topics can be heavy, confusing, and shrouded in stigma. Reduce The Stigma, your favorite podcast for recovery stories, peer specialists, and recovery-oriented organizations, is taking a bold step forward with a brand new series.

Why A New Series?

Meet The Peer and Recovery Conversations have been well-received and we’re so grateful to our audience. We found there was still more we could be doing to reduce stigma. What else can we be doing? Diving even deeper into these tough topics. Sometimes, the most powerful conversations are the raw, honest ones. We all know mental health, use, addiction, and recovery aren’t easy. They’re messy, complex, and often overwhelming. This new series will rip off the bandaid and dive deep, tackling the realities of mental health challenges, substance use, and the stigma that surrounds them.

What to Expect:

  • Live & Interactive: We’re going live! Every episode will be livestreamed, creating a dynamic space for real-time interaction with you, our incredible audience.
  • Peer Power: We’ll be joined by some of your favorite peer specialists, individuals with lived experience who bring invaluable insight and empathy to the conversation.
  • Your Questions Answered: Got something on your mind? Curious to hear a different perspective? Submit your questions for our hosts and guests to tackle head-on.

This isn’t just about sharing stories – it’s about fostering a supportive community where everyone feels empowered to speak their truth. Whether you’re struggling yourself, supporting a loved one, or simply want to learn more, this series is for you.

But We Need Your Help!

To launch this exciting new chapter, we need YOU! We’re hosting a contest to name the show. We’re looking for a title that’s impactful, engaging, and perfectly captures the essence of meaningful conversations about mental health, addiction, and recovery.

  1. Go to Name The New Series to submit your most creative and powerful title suggestions!
  2. Tell all your friends, family, and everyone you can to go vote for your submission! 

The new name and top winner will be announced during our Livestream show 6/25/24 at 8pm ET. 


  • All submissions will be entered into a random selection raffle to win one (1) $20 gift card to the SUC/RTS store
  • The 5 submissions with the most votes will receive a RTS T-shirt
  • The submission selected to be the name will win a $50 SUC/RTS gift card and a $30 peer support voucher redeemable on Straight Up Care. The voucher can be transferred to a friend/family member

Stay tuned for more information on the premiere date, guest line-up, and how to tune in live!

Tips for Coming Up With A Name

  • Know the audience: Who is the show trying to reach? Tailor the name to their interests and language.
    • We are trying to reach individuals with lived experience with substance use, mental health, recovery, struggles, all of life’s hard moments. We also want to reach their friends, family, and people in their community.
  • Keep it catchy: Short, memorable titles are easier to recall. Aim for 2-3 words, ideally under 29 characters.
  • Clarity is key: The name should give listeners a hint about the show’s content or tone.
    • Content: Deep, sometimes emotionally-charged and difficult topics.
    • Tone: Laid back and friendly but also serious about helping others.
  • Search friendly: Include relevant keywords to help listeners find the show. But avoid keyword stuffing; prioritize natural-sounding language.
  • Be unique: Check to see if there’s already a popular show with that name. Think about what would catch your attention?
  • Wordplay magic: Puns, alliteration, or rhyme can make the title stand out.
  • Get feedback: Bounce ideas off friends, family, or potential listeners.
  • Say it out loud: Does it roll off the tongue? How would you introduce it?

Follow Straight Up Care

Contest to Name the New Reduce The Stigma Series Mental health, addiction, drug use, recovery, struggle… these topics can be heavy, confusing, and shrouded in stigma. Reduce The Stigma, your favorite podcast for recovery stories, peer specialists, and recovery-oriented organizations, is taking a bold step forward with a brand new series. Why A New Series? […]

Continue reading "Reduce The Stigma: Help Us name Our New Series"
Blue background with Toni Morrison's photo in the center. Logos for Reduce The Stigma and Meet The Peer. Toni discusses healing, helping, recovery and empowerment.

Healing Through Helping: A Story of Recovery and Empowerment

Toni Morrison, Peer Support Specialist | Reduce The Stigma - Meet The Peer

Toni Morrison, peer support specialist on a transparent background
Toni Morrison quote: The hardest thing is pulling yourself, like mentally pulling yourself out of your darkness. It's so hard. It's so hard, but you can do it. On a white background with salmon/orange paint strokes

In this episode of “Meet the Peer,” host Whitney Menarcheck sits down with Toni Morrison, a Peer Support Specialist from South Dakota. Toni shares her powerful journey from battling addiction and facing legal challenges to embracing recovery and becoming a beacon of hope for others. Discover how Toni’s lived experiences and resilience have shaped her into a compassionate peer specialist dedicated to helping others navigate their recovery journeys.

Connect with a peer specialist:


Click here for the episode’s full transcript.

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Whitney (00:05)

Hello and welcome to Meet the Peer, a special series where we shine the spotlight on peer specialists. Meet the Peer is brought to you by Straight Up Care. With a mission to empower peer recovery professionals, Straight Up Care provides a multi-use platform and resources for peer specialists to share their lived experiences and build a positive connection with those in the recovery community. I’m your host, Whitney Menarcheck, and on this episode of Meet the Peer, we have Toni Morrison, a Certified Peer Specialist in South Dakota. Welcome Toni!


Tanya Morrison (00:38)

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you all for having me.


Whitney (00:43)

So excited to have you here and I can’t wait to learn more about you. And let’s just start with your lived experience, your journey to today.


Tanya Morrison (00:57)

I am in drug court. I had an abusive childhood growing up. I thought I got over that. I had my children and they helped. Children help a lot when you have them. I was with my kids but that’s what got me into active drug addiction. I just, and I lost myself. I lost myself in my addiction. And I was in and out of jail, running away from my warrants. And like, this is what the fifth time was last year, was the fifth time I was in jail because of my warrants, because of my drug use. And I was just tired of it.You know, I wanted to be a mom again. I wanted to be an adult again. And so I decided to go, I decided I was gonna get treatment and get myself better. And so here I am.


Whitney (02:13)

Here you are. And you said you are in drug court. Can you give a kind of brief explanation of what that means?


Tanya Morrison (02:22)

The drug court is basically like the last resort to either get better or go to prison. And I’m not, I’m from the South Pacific. I’m a Pacific Islander. I was not born in the United States. If I go to prison, I get deported back home. And I can’t have that. I can’t have that for myself. And I mean, my kids are here. And if I go back home, I won’t be able to ever see them for what, 10 years? Um, that wasn’t the only reason why I joined drug courts. I mean, I wanted to be better. I wanted, I didn’t want to do drugs anymore. I was tired of the lifestyle. I was tired of just seeing how other people were in drug addiction. Like it’s tiring. It’s, it’s, um, it’s almost hopeless. I lived that life. You know what I mean? Like you wake up every day and you just.


Whitney (03:18)



Tanya Morrison (03:19)

You know, you want to have a better life, but then you keep using drugs, then it’s like, when does it stop? It’s just every day, it’s just the same thing, different days. And I just, I don’t know, I wanted to have a better life. Because I remember having a better life. I remember, you know, I had a good life with my kids, and my kid’s dad . Heartache. Heartache, man, can really, um, can really, uh, how do I say this? I can explain it, it’s just like you can’t breathe, you know, and you just want to forget. You just want to forget.


Whitney (03:58)

Absolutely and so you had this decision then, you said about a year ago, and that led you to drug court and it had that means a little bit different programming.


Tanya Morrison (04:17)

I needed the structure. The hardest thing for me I think was admitting that I can’t get better without help. You know, I thought I was a functioning addict. And now, now today I realize I just, I don’t, no one wants to just function. They want to live. You know, I try to remember how I thought that, but I barely remember my days. The same thing over and over again. I thought I could cherry pick my life. You know, I could still use drugs as long as I go to work. I could still use, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work that way. You’re calling in sick all the time. You don’t show up because you know, you overslept. It doesn’t work. And that was really hard for me to admit that I can’t do this on my own. And for me, I need structure. I need the challenge. I think just the challenge of going to my programming, you know, going to work, being on time, all that, I just, I need that to get better. And it works. It does. I need to choose to do it. That’s what drug court does structure keeps me accountable for sure.


Whitney (05:28)

Yeah, That’s great. Right. And structure is particularly important for many people. I just certainly don’t want to say it works for everyone, but for many people at that beginning of recovery, when your chemicals are kind of rebalancing, you have to kind of, you know, restructure your day. What used to maybe revolve around use or thinking about use is now all this time and that can be a little overwhelming. Uh, so sometimes that structure can really kind of help whenever, like just be that there’s that guiding path.


Tanya Morrison (06:16)

I kind of compare it to just raising your children. You want your kids to grow up with structure, have a routine, do homework at this time, get home, do homework, have an hour of play. Having that structure helps kids grow up to be better adults. I compare my recovery to raising my kids. I taught them this and I should be able to do it myself. You know, this is me, my recovery right now is me telling my kids, because I mean, they’ve seen their dad, they now see me in like with my addiction. And I want, I’m doing this to show them like everything I taught them about structure growing up is, you know, I’m doing it in my recovery. It doesn’t have to just be raising a kid in everything that you do in life.


Whitney (07:08)

Absolutely. And now you have a big day coming up on Wednesday, a graduation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?


Tanya Morrison (07:20)

I’m very excited. I don’t know, I feel I’m getting certified to be a peer support specialist. I really feel like, like I said, I had a rough childhood. I didn’t really start my drug addiction until about six years ago, but I feel like because of my rough childhood, I almost feel like I was meant to have this drug addiction so I can know why people…who’s had a rough childhood, who’s been through abuse, sexual abuse, or just growing up with all that, why they become drug, why they use drugs to cover that up. For me, it was just heartache and the grief of breaking up with my kids’ dad and what I went through with that, that got me into drug use. But I understand now, I see both sides, so to speak. And…I don’t know, being a peer support specialist, I feel like this is like, it’s my destiny. Like it’s what I’m meant to do because I love helping people. Like it’s my, I just love it and I’m just excited to be a peer. I’ve said this from when I first heard about it, I’m going to be a peer support specialist and that’s what I’m going to do. So here I am.


Whitney (08:45)

That’s right. Just two days away from it being official, which is so exciting. And how would you describe peer support to someone who’s not familiar with it?


Tanya Morrison (09:02)

I would say it’s someone who is going to be open-minded, who knows your struggles, who knows what you know. They might not have the same trauma as you, but they know the feelings or the emotions behind those traumas. You know, someone that’s going to be there to encourage you and just give you encouraging words, but yet be honest enough to tell you when you’re doing what you’re not doing what you should be doing. You know? Someone that’s going to be honest, honest and encouraging at the same time. You know, I feel like, I don’t know, peer support should… It’s someone that’s going to be kind enough to tell you when you’re doing wrong and then kind enough to give you encouraging words. It’s just going to be there step by step with you. They’re not going to do the work for you, but they’re sure going to be there for you.


Whitney (09:55)

Right? The person has to do that work and yet having that guide can really be the deal, the thing that changes it from someone who’s been unsuccessful previously and then whenever they can have a peer, someone who’s been there kind of makes such a big difference, don’t you think?


Tanya Morrison (10:16)

It does. I got out of jail last year and I was at the arch. I just remember being so overwhelmed and having all this fright. Okay, I got to get a job. I got to get a place. I got to have three months to do it. I still got to go to programming. I was worried about missing my UA’s because we call this color hot. It’s like a UA hotline that you call it. It tells you your color. If they call your color, you got to go downtown to the courthouse and you know to a UA. All that was just, oh my gosh, like, you know, how am I going to do this? And I don’t know. I remember being so overwhelmed, but not having anyone there. Like, I know I had my PO and my counselor, but I don’t know. It’s just nice to have someone that has your lived experience and who knows what you’re going through. Say hey, you know, take it day by day. Every 24 hours counts for sure.


Whitney (11:21)

Absolutely. And yeah, you may have a PO or a counselor. They haven’t been through the pressure of, okay, you have to get in for your UA, you have to get the job, you have to do X, Y, and Z. And that, like you said, use the word overwhelming. And I think that is just something that people don’t recognize is how much is put on someone at a very vulnerable part of their recovery and then to have someone who’s like, yeah, I get it, been there. And I got through it. There’s hope, there’s inspiration and so what is the thing you are most excited about as you become a peer specialist?


Tanya Morrison (12:09)

Oh, what am I most excited about? Let’s just help that first person that I’m gonna help. I remember, I know how someone can lose themselves in their addiction. I’m excited about helping someone find themselves again and still deal with the changes that recovery brings. That’s what I’m excited about. Because for me, I’m very selfish in my recovery and I find that helping others helps me work on myself, if that makes sense. Like, so, and I work on myself so I can help other people. And this is definitely the job for me. I’m also very excited. I’m also very excited about where that first person invites me to, I don’t know, speak for them when they graduate from drug court,


Whitney (13:08)

That’s exciting.


Tanya Morrison (13:19)

I had an impact on him and I can’t wait for that day to happen. [laughter]


Whitney (13:25)

And I have no doubt that it will. That’s, yeah, that just being there. And when you help someone to accomplish something, I don’t know, in some ways it can be better than some of your own personal accomplishments.


Tanya Morrison (13:42)

I can already, like, I’m like, I can’t wait. I’m an emotional person.


Whitney (13:45)



So, you just said you’re an emotional person, but you also are clearly very genuine and caring. Is there anything else that people should know about you and what they could expect working with you as a peer?


Tanya Morrison (14:09)

I’m very blunt. Like you say I’m genuine and I am. Like I care for people. I’m sincere about it. You know? They can just expect when I say that I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it. I’m more… I show by action rather than talk. Like I’d rather tell you about it because I’ve done it. You know what I mean? I don’t like to say I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that and not do it. So I like to do it and they were like, hey, this is what I did. I’ll always, I’ll be there. You know, if I say I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. That’s what they can expect from me. You know, you tell me what you need, I’m going to do anything and everything in my power to help you get to your next goal.


Whitney (15:02)

That’s wonderful. Step by step, yep. And you’ve mentioned you know your history with addiction. Are there any other life experiences that you will offer support for?


Tanya Morrison (15:03)

That’s all. Um, like sexual abuse and stuff like that? Is that what you mean? Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Um, so my childhood, like, I don’t know. Children are the most defenseless people in the world. You know, when you’re a child and you go through abuse, you can’t really run away from that. You can’t. It doesn’t really matter.


Whitney (15:23)

Whatever, yeah.


Tanya Morrison (15:46)

They take you out of that home, they put you in foster care. It’s like it’s everywhere that you go and you can’t run from it. And it’s only when you become an adult and what you do about what happens to you, you know. I feel like I kind of counseled myself when I became an adult on my abuse. Instead of just totally going downhill and just being whatever, I guess it’s with having my kids kind of like grounded me. And I wanted my kids to have what I didn’t have. I wanted  to be the mom that…I wanted my mom to be with me. I guess it’s for women who have lost their children. I can help with that. Any emotional trauma you’ve been through, I got you. I guess is what I’m saying. I have a lot of empathy with people who have been through grief and loss and just abuse.


Whitney (16:49)

Yeah. Right.


Tanya Morrison (17:01)

You know, just a sense of like, I don’t know, I guess I could have lost myself with my abusive childhood, but I didn’t. I just, I know how it is. I know how it feels and I know the emotions people go through and I just, you know, let me help you. It’s so hard, it’s so hard. There’s still days I still wake up and I still think about back in, you know, back when I was a child and it’s like, you know, if you just, if you let yourself fall into those memories and…It’s really hard to get yourself back out, you know?


Whitney (17:48)

Absolutely. And here you are ready to help others get out.


Tanya Morrison (17:56)

Yes, yes, that’s the hardest thing is pulling yourself, like mentally pulling yourself out of your darkness. It’s so hard. It’s so hard, but you can do it.


Whitney (18:09)

Absolutely. And when people don’t know, you know, the invisible kind of injuries that we all carry with us, it can be very lonely.


Tanya Morrison (18:23)

You know, I have scars on my legs and I used to hide my legs. I wouldn’t wear shorts and stuff. And then finally I was like, you know what? I’m wearing shorts. I don’t care. Cause those don’t define me, you know? When I tell people, I say, if you could see the scars that you can’t see inside me, I’d be hideous. You know what I mean? And it’s just, I gotta hold myself up. Hold my head high and all that. I’m beautiful inside out. You know.


Whitney (18:56)

Absolutely, that’s right and, you know, there’s so much with recovery from addiction, but also with trauma, with involvement in the justice system that people judge. There’s a lot of opinions out there and there’s a lot of stigma. What would you like to say to someone or to just challenge stigma?


Tanya Morrison (19:27)

I don’t think it’s ever right to disrespect someone because of the mistakes they’ve made in their life, you know? For me, to challenge someone because of stigma, I would say, why don’t you try to see what they’ve done because of their mistakes. Your mistakes shouldn’t define you. It’s what you do about those mistakes that people should judge you on. We’re only human. People are going to judge regardless. I can only use myself as an example. I’m here having this interview with you rather than out feeding my addiction. So it’s just, I think people should look at what other, what someone is doing to better themselves rather than what they did, you know, to put themselves in prison or, now what they did is what they’re doing now, day by day.


Whitney (20:24)

Right. And for the person who’s listening to this and going through their own tough time right now, what would you like them to hear?


Tanya Morrison (20:38)

I would like them to hear. I want them to know that they got this. At the end of the day, no one’s going to make your choices for you but you. And if you want to get better, you have to make that choice to get better. You got to take that step. You can’t sit back and think about getting better because it’s not going to happen. I mean, intentions like this, you have to have actions to follow those intentions. You know, you can do it. You can definitely do it. It’s hard. And it’s lonely, because you have to have those boundaries. But you can do it. Those boundaries will save your life and you’ll thank yourself later for them. You’ll end up saying, hey, I like being alone. I like being sober. But definitely, no one’s got you but you.


Whitney (21:30)

I’m gonna go.


Tanya Morrison (21:38)

believe in yourself. You are enough. You are brave. You got this.


Whitney (21:45)

What a great message. Well, Tony, thank you for taking the time to share your story, for being willing to open up. It’s just wonderful to meet you.


Tanya Morrison (21:59)

I appreciate you. Thank you so much.


Whitney (22:02)

And for, no, absolutely my pleasure. And for anyone who’s listening and may be interested in receiving peer support services from Tony, just visit the link in our show notes. And if you enjoyed this interview, please share it with friends and family to help more individuals hear the remarkable stories of peer specialists like Tony. On behalf of Straight Up Care, thank you for joining us.


Tanya Morrison (22:03)

Thanks for having me.



Toni Morrison, Peer Support Specialist | Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer In this episode of “Meet the Peer,” host Whitney Menarcheck sits down with Toni Morrison, a Peer Support Specialist from South Dakota. Toni shares her powerful journey from battling addiction and facing legal challenges to embracing recovery and becoming a beacon of […]

Continue reading "Healing Through Helping: A Story of Recovery and Empowerment"
The word syndicate in red and the number 12 behind it. Syndicate 12 is a free online recovery resource and community.

A Free Recovery Resource and Community: Announcing Syndicate 12

Community. Connection. Recovery.

Jonathan Lewis, Co-Founder, Syndicate 12 and Co-Founder/CTO Straight Up Care

Have you been looking for a FREE, online recovery resource and community? Well, you’ve found it with Syndicate 12! Yes, you’ve read that right – a free, online recovery resource and community. It’s a virtual recovery community that provides the most valuable factor for mental health and substance use recovery – connection to others. The great minds behind Straight Up Care, the only HIPAA compliant telehealth platform that allows peer specialists to work for themselves, now brings another great resource for the recovery community in Syndicate 12. 

Watch Co-Founder, Jonathan Lewis’ interview and announcement of Syndicate 12 below or continue on to read about all the incredible features of the platform.

Click here for the episode’s full transcript.

Syndicate 12

How is Syndicate 12 a recovery resource and community?

Anyone who has experience with mental health or substance use knows that there are a lot of people out there who just don’t get it. Connecting with others who have been there is helpful, validating, and often a source of inspiration. Syndicate 12 provides a free, online social media space where you can connect with those who have similar lived experience. You can share openly, or take advantage of the ability to participate anonymously. All that matters is that you aren’t alone and you’ve got a community eager to support you.

How is it an online/virtual community?Picture of the Straight Up Care profile on Syndicate 12 demonstrating how you can build a community

Like other social media platforms, you can connect with those you know and those you build connections with. By adding friends, sharing posts, and meeting in the virtual meeting halls, you are building your own community of support from those with similar lived experiences.  You can post, share pictures, and earn points, all tracked and visible to your friends on your profile.

What’s the point of the points?

Did you catch mention of points above? Yes, all your activity on Syndicate 12 can earn you points (or lose you points if you violate community rules). The points can then be used to redeem a reward or to gift to others. The provision of points and rewards is an integration of contingency management. 


Rewards can be discounts, like a prescription card that gives you a percentage off the cost of your medications. Rewards can also be things like teeth whitening strips or a voucher for peer support services from a peer specialist on Straight Up Care‘s platform. 

Gift to Others

Have you ever wanted to do something for someone who helped you, but didn’t have anything to give? Now, with points on Syndicate 12 you can express your appreciation through gifting points. Maybe someone in the meeting hall took time to listen to your rough day, send them some points to help them build up to a reward they’ve been wanting. Or, maybe you see someone is having a particularly difficult time, so you send them points they can use to get a voucher for peer support services.

What’s a virtual meeting hall?

Auditorium with a lot of seats for community connection

Syndicate 12 offers multiple meeting halls: substance use, general, and mental health. In these meeting halls, you can connect with others. Whether you turn your camera, upload a photo, or create an avatar – the focus is on providing a safe space for you to connect with others. From each meeting hall, users can enter one-on-one rooms for more private chats, or into breakout rooms for group gatherings. Each hall also has a Celebration room, where you can celebrate good days, anniversaries, birthdays, and whatever else you want to celebrate! Come hang out and see what it’s like in a space dedicated to recovery.

What are the fun things for me to use with my profile?Daily journal with the ability to customize tags for easy tracking   

Life Journal

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize patterns or realize when we’ve been doing well because progress is often small and over a long time. To help you feel in control and able to celebrate the good and prevent the bad, Syndicate 12 offers the recovery journal. With an ability to create and customize tags, you can easily track what works, what doesn’t, and when you’re making great progress towards your goals.

List of actions you can take with your profile.Creating Abilities

Being able to express yourself and connect in multiple ways is a core purpose of Syndicate 12. Thus, all the different ways to create content – from memes to audio to polls to images, whatever is on your mind, there’s a way to express it. Ever wonder the most recovery-friendly gym in your area? Create a ranked list and have people vote! Wondering how many people are open about mental health struggles at work? Create a poll! There’s no limit to the connections that can happen on Syndicate 12.

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Follow Straight Up Care


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:00)
I’m so excited for today’s episode, not only because I’m interviewing my friend and colleague, Jonathan Lewis, the co -founder and CTO of Straight Up Care, but also because Jonathan has a really exciting announcement that you’re not gonna wanna miss. So stay tuned and get ready to be inspired and get excited as we reduce the stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:30)
Hello and welcome to Recovery Conversations. I am so excited for today because we have a special guest, my friend, colleague, boss, the wonderful Jonathan Lewis, who is the Chief Technical Officer for Straight Up Care. And we’re going to learn about him as well as share some really exciting news for everyone. But first, let me just say, Jonathan, thank you so much for joining me today.

Jonathan (01:58)
Thank you for putting this on for us today.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:01)
Yes, I’ve been bugging you for a while because I know how wonderful you are and I’ve been eager to share you with our audience. And so before we get to the exciting news, can we just first learn a little bit about, you know, you’re the chief technical officer and co -founder, I should say, I forgot that part, of Straight Up Care. Can you tell me and us what…

led you to partner with Dr. Mo and create Straight Up Care?

Jonathan (02:33)
Well, yeah, we actually were introduced…

two and a half or three years ago, it’s been a while. And, you know, we started working on a project and, it just kind of grew and grew and grew at first. It was just going to be a little like your run of the mill, telehealth platform where you can pick up the phone and call somebody. it has transformed into a lot more than that based on a lot of the tools that I had available, from a

programming side and all the tools that Dr. Mo had available from the teaching and educational side. And we’ve kind of just steamrolled it and we’re here now.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (03:23)
Yeah, and it’s such a great platform. I’m honored to be a part of it in any way. And just the opportunity it’s providing peer specialists and the barriers it’s breaking down both for peer specialists and for people who are seeking care. And I guess that kind of leads me to, was this an area that was significant to you or?

anything in particular that kind of highlights your involvement in the company.

Jonathan (03:58)
Certainly. Yeah, the whole recovery field. You know, I’ve either been on one side of the fence or the other since I was about 14 or 15.

I believe it was early 2000s, I worked for a state mental health department for strategic planning and prevention for anti -drug coalitions, more on the preventative side. And I saw the value of prevention. I saw all the good that you can do working in prevention.

but there is a big difference in, you know, the prevention side and actual helping people that need it immediately. and when I was working in prevention, it really, it, it was horrible for my recovery process, for my sobriety, because it, it felt to me that everybody I was working with, which was,

I think at the time I was overseeing a couple dozen counties, anti -drug coalitions of which, you know, the numbers were getting worse. Crime, prosecutions, drug, you know, drug charges increasing everywhere, like they do across the world. But I really took that to heart and, you know, it actually pushed me more into my addiction.

And I eventually resigned. but the whole idea of helping people never left. I knew that I had to get my act cleaned up before I could, you know, go and do anything further. So that’s kind of what I did. And that’s the long short route to how we are here today.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (06:03)
Yeah, thank you. And we’re all benefiting from your background and your skill set. And what you’re able to do is really incredible in giving already so many opportunities, but also connection. Connection is so important. We know in recovery, in life, we’re not meant to be isolated beings.

And so having that social connection is really important, which leads me to our exciting news. Can you tell us what it is that we’re launching next?

Jonathan (06:45)
Yes, we are right at kicking off a new platform we’re calling Syndicate 12. I’m very, very excited. And just to a brief overview, it is a platform for connection. It is absolutely free to hop on, to join, to build your connections, to build your core friends, your, you know, your Syndicate of 12.

obviously it doesn’t just have to be 12, but it is very much based on a different type of contingency management and it pulls together all of the community. very much like I was just talking about the coalitions, a coalition is kind of a grassroot effort where everybody comes to the same table, to work together on, you know, bettering the community.

And the same is true with Syndicate 12. We want, you know, the whole care system involved. It is a platform where you can stay completely anonymous and you can connect to people anonymously. We have live 24 seven video rooms open where you can hop on in a very new interactive kind of way.

Basically have a meeting anytime day or night.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (08:21)
That’s great. And getting to play around on it, you know, the anonymity for those who for any reason want to maintain that. You know, the interaction, there are video capabilities, but there are also really cool avatars that you can select to represent yourself. And really giving, at least from my perspective, really giving the person complete control over who they are in that space.

Jonathan (08:51)
Certainly. Yeah, the the goal was, you know, I understand that there are going to be people who want to remain completely anonymous. There are people who may want to make connections, whether it’s, you know, work or actual, you know, in real life friendships. But yes, we have a simple way that you don’t even have to upload your own picture. You can go in and create a avatar like you would, you know, assume, you know, change the hair, change the…

eyes, add glasses, add a beard, you know, whatever you want to do, make it, you know, uniquely you. but you can, you know, upload your own photo or if you want to pop on in video, you can pop on your camera and be there. But some people want to remain completely anonymous. Some people may want to use it to say, you know, Hey, I’m a, I’m a peer specialist and my name is, you can find me over here. It’s not a way to.

you know, just self promote. But the goal is to truly help people and incentivize that keep coming back, keep doing good things.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:04)
And so you mentioned the incentives, contingency management, and for anyone who isn’t familiar with that, contingency management in simplest terms is essentially rewards for achieving various accomplishments. So in the world of recovery, and I should also clarify, syndicate 12 is mental health and substance use. And so.

It would be maybe achieving certain goals that you set for yourself by engaging in the platform and really just continuing to feed your recovery. So with that basic explanation, can you tell us about the incentives? What could someone see as a result of their continued commitment to their recovery?

Jonathan (10:49)
Certainly. Yes, right now, as we are just kicking off, it’s not just incentives that we’re going to be giving.

Apparently we have everything from you can get a MP4 player to Bluetooth wireless headphones. And we have teeth whitening kits. There’s all kind of incentives just on the national. It doesn’t matter where you are, you can kind of benefit from that. But our goal is to use

You know, the people who are on the platform as kind of a brand ambassador. I used to do a lot in marketing. I still have a marketing company. And one of the things I saw most businesses really love the idea of, you know, these coupon sites. I think there are a few big ones, not to mention any names, but a lot of coupon sites.

actually caused a bunch of businesses to kind of go in the red for quite a while and bankrupt a bunch. With what we are planning to roll out, we want to have a map for every state, every location, and get that involvement from the local businesses. We’re going to train the people who want to be trained on how to approach businesses.

how to present the information and how to turn what some people would call a marketing budget into actually helping the community where a portion of that not only is a reward for coming back, whether it’s a coffee shop, they can actually say, if you have redeemed so many points on the platform, you can get a free coffee.

or something to that effect. But by doing that, you know, and most companies go out and say, Hey, you know, free coffee that cheapens their product. But as a reward, you know, it builds more of a value to that for the business side, but also it’s a little bit extra special for those who have been working for it. So from turning it from, you know, a.

special discount to actually helping. And, you know, someone who is involved in the community, someone who say, Hey, we’re a safe place that allow, you know, we’re welcoming towards those with substance use or mental illness. They are welcome here and we reward that. And a lot of the proceeds actually go to get the person who presents this to the business services.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (13:39)

Jonathan (13:56)
and it doesn’t have to go directly to them personally. They get a voucher that they can hand out to people they meet in the video groups or friends or loved ones, but they can actually share that. So hopefully we can all get better.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:11)
That’s such an amazing community effort, right? So I could be in there, I could be gaining points, maybe I earned the voucher for services, and I’m in a good place at that time. But I see someone who’s struggling in my real life or in my virtual connection community, and being able to gift that. I mean, we…

How amazing, that makes me so excited to think about, we all want to be able to offer something to others and we don’t always have the finances or resources, but by doing things that are good for you, you’re going to be able to offer others both because you’re in a good place, but because you’re gonna through our platform get these rewards. And I just see the cycle of kindness and support that I certainly haven’t.

seen anywhere else.

Jonathan (15:12)
Well, thank you. Yeah, that’s, that’s kind of the goal. You know, if, if we can’t grow as a community, you know, or we’re kind of stagnant in the water and, you know, businesses, they can give their money to Google and Facebook and wherever they want to do. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but if they just take one little percentage of that and reinvest in someone who is in their community, who, you know, is trying to do good.

And, you know, we’re not saying that they’re never going to slip again, but they’re going to keep coming back. And if we can just get them to keep coming back, keep taking good actions, you know, it doesn’t matter how many times someone slips at the end of the day, you know, are they going to be better or worse?

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:07)
Right, right. Let’s just keep providing the resources and opportunities for someone to be their most successful self, even when there are those slips along the way. That certainly resonates with my personal philosophy, which is probably why we get along so well. Now, the points. How does someone go about earning points?

Jonathan (16:24)

Of course. Yeah, it’s one as simple as signing up. You get your first amount of points of which the amount of points that you earn just for signing up, you can immediately go and get a prescription card. Excuse me. I’ve been a little under the weather. I need a prescription card. And it’s your, you know, there’s a couple of companies that do it.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:53)

Jonathan (16:59)
The one that we offer it’s up to 80 % off your prescriptions. Even if you already have insurance You know, we we know that a lot of people in the community that’s Taking care of your health has been put on the back burner as I sit here just getting over a sickness myself, but No to have that available. I mean you can save up to 80 % on a prescription that you’re paying for anyways, it’s free to use you just

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (17:17)

Jonathan (17:29)
You know, show it to the pharmacist and they take money off. It’s fantastic. but to get more points, it’s, it’s everything from logging in every day from, like sharing the positive posts that we have. the philosophy behind that is if you’re sharing it to your social media sites, you know, that’s an embedding of who you are and what you’re doing. You have all of your social community.

Not really holding you accountable, but at least it’s on their radar to say, okay, well, trying to do good. If he slips, you know, we, we are there for him or her. but it’s, it’s doing that. We have, you know, points for, if you watch certain videos that are, you know, geared towards recovery or growth or, you know, a certain topic, you do get rewards for that.

For participating in certain things, we have a list of long stuff that you can get points for. We actually have a couple of things that can take points away as well. So, you know, we want it to be organic community. We don’t want to, you know, police it 24 7 and even to that effect we have, you know, if.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:42)

Jonathan (18:56)
If you report something that doesn’t need to be there and we find it doesn’t need to be there, you can get a point for kind of a self policing thing. but at the end of the day, the, the overall goal points, aside it’s if you show up, and are active in a community that wants to help. the neat thing is when.

We hop into our video rooms. One, it can be a big auditorium. We have a celebration room. You can, you can, you know, celebrate people’s wins. their recovery birthdays, all that kind of stuff, but a big auditorium, and little break off groups. There’s dozens of break off groups and they also have like one -on -one groups where, you know, it’s just you and one other person. No one else can hop in there and.

you know, hear your conversation. but it’s once you take a seat, that seat is full and you know, you can build these relationships with people and you can, you know, hear what other people have to say, hear other people advice. And one of the, one of the most beneficial ways to get points in my opinion, I’ve set it up where if someone helps you,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:02)

Jonathan (20:23)
You can give them the points that you’ve earned just to, you know, thank you for doing what you’re doing. I really needed that today. Or, you know, you turn my life around. I know it’s, it’s hard to say here’s, here’s a thousand points for turning my life around. That seems kind of, underselling it, but I mean, there’s so many people out there who are every day meeting with people, helping people.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:32)

Jonathan (20:53)
And they don’t know if they’re appreciated or not. It’s, they may never see that face again, or they see them once a week and, you know, an hour long meeting and they really don’t know the impact that they’re making. There’s no real way to say thank you for that. and, you know, hopefully this will encourage people to keep helping and keep, you know, know that you’re appreciated for helping.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:17)

Absolutely incredible. There’s been so much more interest lately from, I mean, I think at the lived experience level, it’s always been there, but there’s more recognition, I should say, about putting the people with the lived experience in charge. And that’s exactly what’s happening here. And it’s giving them, like I said, opportunities, but also the way to…

support others, build others up, and have this almost like a current of recovery currency through the points where you can can do what you wouldn’t be able to do in the you know physical world of meetings and different groups and things like that because you’re not going to just give someone twenty dollars but you can give them twenty points towards their next you know achievement maybe they’ve been working towards

You mentioned teeth whitening, maybe that they really wanted that. That’s something that they have been looking forward to and you can contribute to that to help them achieve that thing that’s going to make them feel better. So it’s just such a wonderful community that you have built with the structure of Syndicate 12 and what we’re embarking on. And is there any other feature or component or purpose that we haven’t touched on that you’d like everyone to know?

Jonathan (22:51)
yeah, there’s, there’s a whole list of features that, you have to get in it. It may take another hour video. but what, you know, some of the just real off the top kind of things. One we’ve talked about the video rooms, which I think are fantastic and, you know, great, but we’ve built in a end to end encrypted journal. You can.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:59)

Jonathan (23:19)
You know, it’s kind of a calendar journal where you can, you know, say today I struggled with this. I went to the park with this person and I did this and this and this, and you can color code it. So the goal is, you know, like any journal, I mean, you get a, you get a book journal and just write in it. That’s great. It’s hard to flip back to see, okay, well, I have, I have a whole lot more red dots.

back in the past and I have good, you know, green dots and it right now. So you can kind of see that, Hey, things are getting better because you know, me personally, it was, I just never felt like there was any, any real growth in my recovery process. And, you know, looking back, it’s like, yeah, today is so much better than, you know, even, even seven or eight years ago from now.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:51)

Jonathan (24:17)
But by having that journal, you know, it’s, it’s completely yours. Not even, you know, even if you were to break in the mainframe, you couldn’t access it because it is intent encrypted. but that is another great tool that is added in there. We have, for a little more anonymity, it’s kind of like a Reddit type posting and,

you know, response Q &A area. If you just have a burning desire and you know, you can get points for posting good questions and posting good replies there too. We let you actually build up a core group of friends, hence your own syndicate and you can have a private group inside of the actual Syndicate 12 platform. So if you already have a

a local, you know, anonymous group and you want to, you know, have a place to congregate, leave messages, you know, it is there built for things like that. Or if you just want to have a core group of your 12 that you check in with and hold each other accountable, that’s the idea. You have a group where you can get your Knights of the Round Table together and just watch everybody’s back.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:30)


Amazing. Absolutely amazing. And how does somebody join?

Jonathan (25:54)
Yeah, all you need to do is go to syndicate12 .com and register. we will be launching a kind of a kickoff promo where you can get even more rewards. We’re going to have a little contest to, you know, encourage people to share and grow their community. and there’s a lot of different, just little fun interactive reward contest.

that will be kicking off just right off the bat.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (26:26)
That’s so exciting. I know I’m already on there and I’m ecstatic to see what everyone starts to share and the traction that we get within the community just because it gives back directly to the community. That’s the most important thing. So as we wrap up, if anyone listening was to only take one thing away from our discussion today, what would you want it to be?

Jonathan (26:58)
that we recover together and recovery is possible. That’s the main thing. It’s not about the tools we build or the websites we go to. It’s that people do recover. There is hope out there.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (27:18)
Thank you, Jonathan, so much for taking the time. I know you’re not feeling great. Having you on is such a pleasure, and I’m so glad everyone got to meet you and to hear about the exciting Syndicate 12.

Jonathan (27:34)
Whitney, I appreciate you. I appreciate all you do.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (27:39)
Everybody go check out syndicate12 .com and start spreading the news because when you do that means that someone else is going to benefit for their recovery because as Jonathan put it perfectly, we’re in this together, we’re here to support one another. So let’s do this. Let’s get out there and build this community even more. Thank you everybody for listening.

Community. Connection. Recovery. Have you been looking for a FREE, online recovery resource and community? Well, you’ve found it with Syndicate 12! Yes, you’ve read that right – a free, online recovery resource and community. It’s a virtual recovery community that provides the most valuable factor for mental health and substance use recovery – connection to others. […]

Continue reading "A Free Recovery Resource and Community: Announcing Syndicate 12"
Two hands with glitter and streams and a floating heart with different symbols of peace, love, accessibility. Represents being able to create safe spaces for recovery mental health addiction by carrying it within you to offer others.

Safe Spaces for Mental Health, Addiction, and Recovery

Creating Safe Spaces, Reducing Stigma, and Fostering Support

The need for safe spaces surrounding mental health, substance use, addiction, and recovery continues to grow. While we have seen numerous stigma reduction efforts nationwide, there is still significant discomfort talking about these significant life experiences. This article will provide an overview of how safe spaces can be created in every environment and the necessity for the average person, not just healthcare professionals, to take action to make sure others have a place to go for help, support, or a listening ear free of judgment, punishment, or fear.

Understanding Safe Spaces

A safe space, in general, is a setting/environment in which a person can be their authentic self without fear of discrimination, harassment, or emotional harm. Safe spaces for mental health, addiction, substance use, and recovery, similarly, are spaces in which those topics are not judged, where the person is not shamed, and where empathy is abundant. There is intentionality in safe spaces – a deliberate effort to foster a sense of security, acceptance, and mutual respect. As a result, the person can be vulnerable and open about their experiences and needs. The majority of safe spaces are formal programs, but that limits the availability of support and acceptance to only those entities when we all could benefit from safe spaces everywhere. Truly safe spaces take into consideration the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental safety of the person. This means thinking about images depicted, language used, noises heard, and resources provided. 

Benefits of Safe Spaces

Regardless of the nature of the space, safe spaces offer a variety of benefits that contribute to the overall wellbeing of an individual. When considered in the context of mental health, addiction, and recovery, these spaces may be the only place the person feels secure asking for help or expressing a need. Let’s look at three specific benefits of these spaces:

  1. Reduced Stigma and Isolation: We know that, sadly, significant stigma and shame continue to surround addiction, mental health, and recovery. This can lead a person to avoid acknowledging their needs and refraining from interacting with others out of fear of judgment or ridicule. By providing a safe space, we are sending the message that the person can be whomever they are without fear of repercussion. When there is a safe space, people are less likely to withdraw and isolate. And as we all learned from COVID-19, social isolation is extremely detrimental to wellbeing.
  2. Increased Access to Support: Let’s be clear – the role of a safe space is not solely to provide services, referrals, or references. The is so much power in simply existing as a place of acceptance. However, for those who are seeking assistance, the existence of safe spaces break down barriers to awareness of services and even accessing care.
  3. Empowerment and Self-Efficacy: When someone has a safe space to be themselves, their self-esteem improves. Perhaps while in that space, they’ll learn about a helpful resource, show kindness to another person, or experience a sense of pride for engaging in a space that embraces them. This can all contribute to an increased sense of empowerment and self-efficacy. Think about it, if you have become accustomed to being told, or the message implied, that you’re “bad” or “wrong” for an aspect of your life and then find a place of acceptance and empathy, wouldn’t you, too, feel empowered? That who you are IS enough, that you DO matter?

How to Create a Safe Space

Safe spaces can be offered anywhere, and should be everywhere. There are no physical building requirements for a safe space, sometimes all it takes is the ambiance of acceptance. Here are some ways to facilitate the provision of a safe space.

Physical Safety

  • Secure Environment: Ensure that the space is free from potential hazards. Create safety protocols to ensure the physical safety of the person. 
  • Address Potential Concerns: If someone is fearful of others hearing, take time to explain how conversations are kept private.
  • Accessibility: Provide ramps, elevators, accessible restrooms, and other accommodations to eliminate any discomfort or exclusion of the individual.
  • Cleanliness: Maintain a clean environment.
  • Amenities: Consider providing things such as water and healthy snacks. (Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs)

Emotional and Mental Safety

  • Non-Judgmental Environment: You cannot simply say it’s non-judgmental, the actions and words of all in the space must demonstrate true acceptance and lack of judgment. Know the proper terminology and language to avoid accidental stigmatization. 
  • Supportive Atmosphere: Validate the person’s experience, don’t interrogate. Offer resources when needed and wanted.
  • Clear Communication: Don’t make an assumption that you know what they mean or that they understand you. Confirm what you heard and ask if they have any questions. Encourage open dialogue to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.
  • Conflict Resolution: Promote a culture of forgiveness and reconciliation. 
  • Trauma-Informed: Be mindful of potential trauma experiences and possible triggers. 
  • Eliminate Stress: Create a calm and soothing environment. 
  • Encourage Self-Care: Empower the person to spend time taking care of themselves.

Spiritual Safety

  • Respect for Beliefs: Acknowledge and accept diverse beliefs. Avoid imposing your own. Ask thoughtful questions to take their beliefs into consideration.
  • Inclusive Practices: Provide the opportunity for their traditions and practices to be facilitated.
  • Holistic Recognition: Take into account the various components of spirituality.
  • Trauma-Informed: The person may have experienced spiritual or religious trauma – be attentive to and respectful of their engagement or lack thereof in spiritual activities.


Whether it’s a formal setting, an online community, or a park bench – we can make any space safe for individuals with mental health, addiction, substance use, and/or recovery experiences. Regardless of where we are, we carry within us the ability to provide a safe space by being empathetic and non-judgmental. If we all commit to making whatever space were are in safe, we will be making tremendous strides forward to ensuring all who want or need support are able to obtain it.

Looking for a safe space?

Connect with a peer specialist.

Visit Syndicate 12, an online environment designed specifically for individuals with mental health and/or substance use lived experience.

Creating Safe Spaces, Reducing Stigma, and Fostering Support The need for safe spaces surrounding mental health, substance use, addiction, and recovery continues to grow. While we have seen numerous stigma reduction efforts nationwide, there is still significant discomfort talking about these significant life experiences. This article will provide an overview of how safe spaces can […]

Continue reading "Safe Spaces for Mental Health, Addiction, and Recovery"

Managing PTSD and ADHD: The Power of Recovery and Facing Your Feelings

Melissa Saady, Peer Specialist | Reduce The Stigma - Meet The Peer

Melissa Saady Peer Specialist Virginia in a green shirt PTSD ADHD trauma recovery

Using her own experiences with PTSD, ADHD, and addiction, Melissa decided to channel her journey into a meaningful career. Melissa completed extensive training and obtained certifications as a Peer Specialist, equipping her with the necessary tools to make a difference in the lives of those she encounters. Melissa has always been driven by her desire to help others and her passion for providing support and helping others be successful shines bright in this interview.

Melissa’s Approach:

With her warm and compassionate demeanor, Melissa creates a safe and non-judgmental environment for individuals seeking support. She actively listens to their stories, offering a genuine understanding of their struggles. Melissa’s main goal is to empower others and guide them towards their own path to recovery.

The Impact of Melissa’s Work:

Through her work as a Peer Specialist, Melissa has touched the lives of countless individuals in Richmond, Virginia and across the US. She has provided invaluable support to those battling mental health challenges, helping them navigate the complexities of their journeys. Melissa’s dedication and expertise have earned her a reputation as a trusted resource in the community.

Click here for the episode’s full transcript.

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Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:00)

Today we’re revisiting our very first episode of Meet the Peer with Melissa Soddy. Melissa talks about the importance of facing our emotions and truly feeling them to work through to the other side. And she talks about the importance of self -love and having that internal strength and confidence to be exactly who you were meant to be, yourself. Stay tuned and be ready to be inspired as we continue to reduce the stigma.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:33)

Hello and welcome to Meet the Peer, a special series where we shine the spotlight on peer specialists. Meet the Peer is brought to you by Straight Up Care. With a mission to empower peer recovery professionals, Straight Up Care provides a multi-use platform and resources for peer specialists to share their lived experiences and build a positive connection with those in the recovery community. On this episode of Meet the Peer, we have Melissa Saady, a certified peer recovery specialist in Virginia.


Welcome, Melissa.


Mel Saady (02:05)

Hi, happy to be here.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:07)

Thank you so much for joining us. Can you share a little bit with me about your journey, your lived experience?


Mel Saady (02:15)

So I have been in recovery from addiction for six years now. Actually coming up on my six year mark in a couple weeks.


And this is something that while working in the field, I’ve learned this is a very common thing that happens is I had an injury where I broke several bones. And I was then prescribed painkillers from the doctors because, you know, that’s what you do when you have a severe injury and these painkillers flipped a switch in my brain. And then suddenly, suddenly I was seeking out.


all these substances and it just kind of snowballed from there and it was about a decade in active addiction and then about six years ago I got into recovery and I have always wanted to be able to help people in some way and in my


When I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher, a nurse, a therapist, something of that nature. And now that I’m a person in recovery, I’ve realized that lived experience as a person in recovery is so valuable because you can reach people in a way that other clinicians can’t really reach them. So. When I was.


staying at this recovery community organization, this place was run completely by peers. And that to me was very inspiring. Just seeing people like in a place, in that kind of position that were once where I was, was very inspiring. And I think that is one of the main goals of a peer recovery specialist is to be inspiration to those


who are in a place where they need a little bit of hope. So I love being able to be that person that helps fuel somebody’s hope.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (04:34)

That’s really exactly what a peer support is, right? I mean, you are interested in being a nurse, being a teacher, being a counselor, and all of those fields are pulled skills and passions are pulled into being a peer. And then that hope, can you tell me a little bit more about how peers can provide hope?


Mel Saady (04:43)





Yes, hope. So that is kind of, that is one of the main things that peers do is they provide hope to people who are in need of that. A lot of people, when they come into treatment or when they’re seeking recovery or when they’re struggling with some sort of, when they’re struggling with some sort of mental, when they’re struggling, sorry, let me say that over, when they’re struggling with,


mental illness or substance use disorder, they kind of lose hope because it puts you in a very, it puts you in a really dark place where you kind of feel like there’s no way out. So you kind of, you often get stuck in these cycles of just repeating the same thing over and over again, even though you know it’s not really helping. And then when you see a peer who has walked the walk and they have


walked this path before you. So that’s kind of what the pier is there to do there. They’ve walked they’ve already walked this path. I’ve already walked this path and I can show you the way and I’m not I can’t do it for you but I’m going to walk alongside you while you’re doing it and cheer you on the whole way.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (06:20)

That’s very powerful to be able to have someone who’s there for you through such hard times.


Mel Saady (06:27)

Mm-hmm. It really is. And a lot of times that’s all somebody really needs is just to feel, feel like somebody cares about them. Um, really that’s also my needs is to feel like somebody cares about them and feel like they really support them. Cause sometimes, sometimes we get, we get in these places where we feel so disconnected from everybody. And really the


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (06:29)

in our


Mel Saady (06:54)

The opposite of recovery is not sobriety by definition. It is connection by definition. Connection is the opposite of addiction. So when you fill your life with support and connections of people who really care about you and care for your best interests, then that is how you work your way out of addiction.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (07:21)

So a peer can truly be that person who’s there to start that connection, be a strong, stable connection along the way.


Mel Saady (07:31)

Mm-hmm, exactly.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (07:34)

And you touched on your experience with addiction. What other experiences do you offer peer support for?


Mel Saady (07:44)

Other experiences that I have are…


Other experiences that I have are with PTSD. I have complex PTSD and also with ADHD, something that I’ve been managing for quite a while. And all of these things get so much easier once you take the substances away. That actually gives you the opportunity to really.


figure out what is going on within you instead of just drowning it out or numbing it out using substances. Because what I’ve learned is that when you are using when you are using something and it’s not always a drug or alcohol or some sort of substance right there’s so many different things that we can use to numb out. So when you’re using something to numb out


It may temporarily numb the pain, yes, but it does not make it go away. It’s always still going to remain there. So when you stop using things to numb out, that’s when you can really actually figure out what’s going on and work through it and just feel it through all the way together, all the way to the other side.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (09:10)

Right, right, really live through it in a different way.


Mel Saady (09:15)



Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (09:16)

Is there anything people should know about your style as a peer specialist?


Mel Saady (09:31)

My style as a peer specialist, I would say I have a pretty wide ranging style. I don’t like to kind of keep myself in one little.


Hmm, trying to figure out how to say that.


My style is a peer recovery specialist.


would I would describe as


My style as a peer recovery specialist, I would describe as being pretty.


eclectic or dynamic, I suppose you could say. So I like to take from different pathways and really just cater to the needs of the individual. So whatever is resonating the most with them, that’s what I’m going to be there to provide for them. I do like to look at individuals holistically. So


I do, I believe a lot in holistic care, looking at a person as a, as a whole organism and not just as one symptom that they’re experiencing. Um, I also, I, I use, uh, faith based practices. I like to use mindfulness practices a lot. I’m really big on teaching, teaching folks about grounding techniques and just, you know, all the different kinds of


coping skills that you can use.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:25)

That’s great, really meeting the person and seeing what they need and what will work for them.


Mel Saady (11:26)





Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:35)

And there is so much stigma around substance use disorder, mental health. Uh, if you had only one thing you could say to challenge stigma, what would it be?


Mel Saady (12:03)

Keeping something in the shadows is how it thrives. So when we are afraid to talk about these kinds of things, that’s when they get really scary and really big and really dangerous. But if we’re able to actually just have a conversation, not be scared to bring it up, not be scared to tell people what’s going on, that lessens the power of it significantly.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:32)

Wonderful. And there’s going to be someone out there who watches this interview or maybe listens to it and they’re having a difficult time. What would you like them to hear?


Mel Saady (13:00)

I would like them to hear that there are people out there that care about you. There are people that care. Please don’t tell yourself that, that nobody cares about you or there is no hope because there are people that care about you and want the best for you. I promise that.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (13:20)

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?


Mel Saady (13:33)

Oh, some other things that I’m very, some other things that I’m very passionate about are working with women and queer folks and working to empower them, help them feel empowered and themselves just feel, you know, more rooted within themselves and not, not feel the need to.


constantly get validation from somebody else to make sure they’re doing the right thing. Like I want you to be able to trust yourself. I’m also very experienced working in grief support settings. I have experienced a lot of loss in my life from a pretty young age. And so.


I know that, so I’m pretty familiar with grief and how grief affects a person’s life and can affect your mind, how it can trigger certain things like substance misuse and all kinds of things like that. And grief is one, another thing that there’s a lot of stigma around. People don’t really feel safe to just talk about it. Like if you’re…


If you’re really missing a loved one that just died, most people don’t feel safe to just talk about that with anybody. So I like to pride myself in providing that safe space for people to just open up about what’s going on with them.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (15:08)

for something that we all experience. We certainly don’t make it easy for people to talk about it. So that’s wonderful that you’re gonna be able to support people through those tough, tough experiences.


Mel Saady (15:23)

Thank you.


Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (15:25)

Thank you so much for joining me today. I am just so hopeful and uplifted knowing that you’re going to be there to support people. So thank you so much.


Mel Saady (15:37)

Thank you so much for asking me to be here today.


Melissa Saady, Peer Specialist | Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer Connect with Melissa Using her own experiences with PTSD, ADHD, and addiction, Melissa decided to channel her journey into a meaningful career. Melissa completed extensive training and obtained certifications as a Peer Specialist, equipping her with the necessary tools to make a difference in […]

Continue reading "Managing PTSD and ADHD: The Power of Recovery and Facing Your Feelings"
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