I wish someone had told me to just “be”. So much power in being able to be yourself. There are always expectations but learning to just “be” allows you the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.
As a part of our series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Avi Burstein.
Avi Burstein is a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland. He is the VP of Clinical Services at Amatus Health managing and growing a national brand of addiction and mental health programs. Avi sees his work through the lenses of community, values systems, change models, and appreciating imperfection as a motivator for transformation. Avi lives in Maryland with his partner, three children, and golden retriever.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?
Of course! I grew up in an orthodox Jewish community in New York, obtained my degree in Counseling Psychology and have been working in the field since 2007. My career has taken twists and turns but ultimately pushed me into a space helping those struggling with who they are or what they want in life. This shows up in the work I do in addictions very frequently and is what I am most passionate about.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?
I wish I could say there was. There are never that many degrees of separation from addiction, however, I really wanted to make a difference in a meaningful way while working with folks that were underprivileged and lost within themselves. Once I found the work, I fell in love with it. Finding the individual’s spark to be whole again, the humanism of it, and helping the individual learn to be and accept themselves is what I love. It’s what keeps me going.
Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?
That’s a great question. It is such a complex question. It is likely the result of a convergence of various things including pharmaceutical company’s pushing pain medications, socioeconomic policy, and culture’s desire to avoid pain. Once you mix that with emotional pain, you find yourself in an epidemic.
Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?
I have been trying to reduce as many barriers to care as possible. We want to make sure we can get an individual into care at any time of the day, especially since we know that window of willingness will only last so long. Once they are in care, we work to address the individual’s whole picture. We don’t see them with just an addiction. We see the family, the partner, the children, the work, the community and try to address these issues as a whole. To do this we offer many levels of care including aftercare to complete the continuum. This allows the individual to get back to their life with the proper supports in the right pace.
Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?
I love getting people connected with care. I think immediately of a veteran seeking care. He came up to the front desk just asking about services, although did not seem ready commit to anything. We asked if he’d like to just meet with someone to talk about the program. After a few minutes of talking, we let him know we have a therapist he can talk work with. Within an hour or so, he was evaluated and starting treatment. He completed IOP and kept up with his individual therapist too. It’s getting people into care at the moment in time that they are ready to commit that can make the world of a difference.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I really love working with the staff. There is so much motivation and passion to make a difference and I love finding ways to give them the tools to grow their clinical skills. I believe training and investing in staff will help even more people.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?
I think about this all the time. The community needs to recognize that this problem or disease has been present in plain sight all along. It doesn’t show up as addiction but shows up in pain, whether suppressed or overt. We need to recognize that intervention is the absolute key to successful prevention. If someone is struggling with something, get them help, don’t wait.
In addition, better communication and education regarding prescribed medication use is key. This includes the medical professionals prescribing less at a time, utilizing pain management professionals more frequently, and educating families on disposing leftover medication once the pain is resolved.
Finally, there needs to be more access to full continuum treatment. Society views treatment as episodic, that only requires one episode of stabilization: however, if someone needs a higher level of care, they shouldn’t be rushed back into life where they could easily relapse. Stepping down in levels of care is critical and I think I’ve seen too many families and employers, understandably, seeking the short-term intervention vs the long term. If we think of this through a medical model, we would want to make sure they get the right amount of care to be stabilized and successful. This includes more than 30–60 days of treatment.
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
Thankfully, a lot of laws addressing telehealth have been passed as a result of the pandemic. This has allowed us to provide even greater access to care which in turn helps both the rural and urban communities. However, many of these laws are sunsetting due to states of emergencies expiring. The pandemic has shown how much the communities need these services; legislation should make them permanent. On a macro level, I think investing in workforce development is crucial. We just don’t have enough grads coming out of school to meet the dire needs of the community. I’d like to see greater access to loan repayment programs similar to the ones that the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) offers. Finally, because prevention and intervention are the best forms of treatment, I’d like to see legislation passed that creates a financial model for early intervention for substance use and mental health in early childhood. Many states are adopting this with promising results, however, this is certainly not across the board.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
Seeing the lightbulb go off in an individual while they are in treatment. Not only seeing them recognize that they can enter recovery but also witnessing them learn how to value what recovery has to offer more than the addiction.
Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?
I know it’s possible.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I am always editing this definition as I grow in my experiences. I tend to go back to an example that Elie Wiesel, the famous teacher, has used. The willingness to not only focus on what appeals to one’s ambitions but also, to accept and rise to the responsibilities that are received unintendedly or unwillingly, I focus on that quite a bit. This field chose me by happenstance; I see a lot of pain to be healed and work to be done, often seeing people in their vulnerable humanity. This is my driving force and one that I use to motivate other leaders.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish I learned about something called “Rule 62” which states “don’t take yourself too seriously”. This has helped me be more present in the moment and be a better person and therapist.
- School is so technical and needs a lot of “in the field” experience. I wish someone told me to learn to trust my gut. It would have made that process smoother.
- I wish someone told me earlier that you don’t find meaning but rather you create it. When I heard this, I was able to take the reins and feel more connected in what I do.
- I was told “when you are done learning you are done helping” but never internalized it until later. Learning to operationalize this has enabled me to meet ever present “change” with a set of fresh eyes.
- Finally, I wish someone had told me to just “be”. So much power in being able to be yourself. There are always expectations but learning to just “be” allows you the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Somehow, I wish people could see things from the others’ perspective. I think that would allow for so much healing in this field. I think if those individuals whom are not directly affected by addiction viewed this disease through the eyes of the one engulfed in addiction would be a start. It’s similar to thinking about the person with an addiction seeing their other “self” hidden inside themselves and vice versa. Asking themselves, what can I learn from the other that I do not yet know. I think this kind of movement can bring about so much change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Remember where you came from so you can know where it is you want to go”. I don’t think that is exactly how my grandfather said it but that is how I internalize it. We all start somewhere, and we may feel lost going forward; however, but if we look back, we will remember where it is we want to go.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
It’s sad, but both of my “people” are no longer living. I would have loved to meet Fred Rogers or Elie Wiesel. They have deeply informed my values and goals in life. Their compassion, patience, passion, and desire to change the world are tough to beat.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can visit @AmatusHealth on Facebook
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!