The Power of Connection and Contagion: A Social Recovery Model in New Zealand


Ki te mea ka taka te kakano ki te wahi e tika ana ka tinaku, a, ka pihi ake he tipu hou (If a seed falls in the right place it will germinate and a new seedling will sprout)

As William White has argued, recovery is contagious and passes in social networks from one visible "carrier" to another through processes of attraction, engagement, social learning (imitation) and social connection. While this seems like a magical or mystical process, it can be harnessed and applied in treatment settings where there is a commitment to celebrating lived experience and where there are community supports and resources available.

What is described in this paper is how these principles are being used in Auckland, New Zealand, to promote and sustain recovery and to build stronger communities throughout the city.

Odyssey is a not-for-profit organisation supporting New Zealanders with addiction challenges since 1980. Operating in communities, schools, prisons and residential settings, Odyssey works together with tangata whai ora (people seeking wellness) to help them move forward with their recovery.

The partnership involves Odyssey and a UK university (Derby) who are applying three linked evidence-based techniques to support tangata whai ora and communities to build all three component parts of recovery capital, each of which maps against one of techniques that we will be using in the project.

Table 1: Recovery capital model and measurement: What it means and how to measure it:

Type of capital

Definition and examples

Measurement process

Level 1: Personal recovery capital

The abilities and skills that the person needs to build to sustain and grow their recovery and wellbeing, e.g. self-esteem, resilience

REC-CAP (Cano et al, 2017): A strengths-based approach to assessing recovery assets and barriers

Level 2: Social recovery capital

The social supports the person has and their commitment to them eg family, home group

Social Identity Map (SIM; Best et al, 2016) which is a visualisation of the groups the person belongs to and their commitment to those groups

Level 3: Community recovery capital

The resources available in the community that the person can tap into to support their recovery journey

Asset Based Community Engagement Tool (ABCE; Collinson and Best, 2019) which is a way of mapping community assets and the individual's experiences of engaging with each. Once assets and pathways into such assets have been identified, processes ofassertive linkage? hold great importance to connect individuals into the appropriate resources

The purpose of the whole model is to develop the Level 1 resources--those skills and capabilities that will protect and support a recovery journey. But we know that this takes time--according to the Betty Ford Institute Consensus Group, 'stable recovery' (five years or more of abstinence) takes around five years to achieve.

What our work has shown is that those personal qualities (self-esteem, self-efficacy, communicationskills, coping skills and resilience) do not grow by themselves. They are seeds that can blossom into blooming flowers if they are nurtured by social supports and by communities that care and that provide the fuel and nutrients that will allow the flowers to blossom. Supports include therapeutic communities and traditional treatment approaches as well as mutual aid groups, sports and recreation activities, volunteering opportunities, colleges and apprenticeships.

Each person in recovery is different, with a unique set of skills, passions and relationships. The REC-CAP (Level 1) will assess what those strengths and skills are and what barriers there are to building that strengths base and is repeatedly administered (every three months or so) so that the person receiving support can chart their growth in recovery resources, the ultimate metric of how close they are to beingself-sufficient? in their recovery.

The REC-CAP concludes with a recovery care plan, and that is where the Level 2 and Level 3 activities come in.

At Level 2, the Social Identity Map is a visualisation technique that will show the social groups and networks the person belongs to that are pro-recovery (social recovery capital) and that are barriers to their recovery (negative social recovery capital). The map will show how that social world needs to change to allow personal recovery capital to grow, and also the extent to which external supports are needed to actively (assertively) link the person to the recovery resources at Level 3.

The ideal situation is that the person early in their journey has access to supportive groups that they are committed to and who are committed to supporting their recovery. But they will also need their own unique set of resources outside of the social network, and this is where the Level 3 Asset Based Community Engagement process comes in.

For the flower of personal capital to grow, the twin stakes of social and community capital are needed to support the plant until it can stand alone.

And here is the beauty of this model. It is not a zero-sum game. As each recovery flower blooms, so the garden is enriched and enhanced.

To end where we started with William White's work--he has argued that the soil must be fertile to support recovery growth. Our argument would be that each time a flower blooms in this field, the garden is enriched.

To cite a second academic giant, the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite, social capital is not like financial capital. We all know that when you spend financial capital you end up with less of it. But this is not true of social and community capital. The more of it that is used, the greater the pool that exists.

For every recovery flower that blossoms, so the soil is enriched, and the easier it is for new flowers to grow. As recovery takes hold in atherapeutic landscape , the community has greater resources, less exclusions and stigma and more resource to support this approach.

The Social Model of Recovery is an attempt to marry the nurturance of the field with the growth of each individual flower to create personalised pathways to stable recovery.