By Melanie Grieco
It has been a couple of years since I have graduated from my Master’s of Social Work program, but the words of one of my especially-passionate professors have stayed with me: “how we define a problem determines how we define our solution.” It is often our perceptions about individuals, our community, the world around us, and ourselves that dictate our decisions and how we respond to events. In honor of Perception Programs’ 50th anniversary, I did a little digging into how we created our name, and am proud to be a clinician at an agency that embodies its name in its historical and present response to addiction and mental health recovery.
In 1970, heroin use was concerning a number of local doctors, lawyers, faith leaders, and educators. University of Connecticut President Homer Babbidge sent psychiatrist John Haney to reach out to the community and learn more about the crisis, particularly because it affected many traumatized Vietnam-veteran students. Yet it quickly became apparent that the entire region needed help.
Dr. Haney, Dr. Morton Glasser, and Attorney Daniel Lamont organized the Eastern Connecticut Drug Action Program (ECDAP) in response, which, funded by $100 contributions from board members, started an outpatient treatment program in a building owned by the Episcopal Church. Not only did they give personal contributions to a cause that they recognized as urgent, but they also engaged in community activism. They mailed information and donation requests to all of the friends and community members that they could think of, and garnered support for a state-funded grant. In total, their efforts raised $10,000 in donations, which allowed them to rent a new building they coined “Perception House” and hire a part-time counselor. Responding to ever-adapting needs, ECDAP continued to expand its services and was renamed Perception Programs as a nod to the very first program.
Yet the determined leaders Haney, Glasser, and Lamont did not stop there. Intent on best meeting the community’s needs, they risked their own houses as collateral and agreed to co-sign the mortgage for Perception Programs to purchase its first building. Over the agency’s 50 years, PPI has continued to grow into a broad range of treatment programs, including risk reduction outreach, return-to-work training for formerly incarcerated people, sober housing, HIV/AIDs support, outpatient treatment, and residential treatment for mental health and substance use disorders.
I believe the name “Perception Programs” has two meanings, relating both to the perception of staff and that of our clients. First, it is important to note that stigma around addiction in the 1970s was still strong, and certainly continues to this day. For example, it wasn’t until 1956 that alcoholism was accepted as an illness by the American Medical Association, and not until 1987 that it was declared an addiction (https://www.addictioncampuses.com/blog/how-long-addiction-classified-disease/). All too often, people have and continue to define addiction as a problem with the person rather than with the substance itself, citing individuals who are addicted as being fundamentally flawed or having a moral failing worthy of disgrace or shame. And if something is inherently wrong with the person rather than the addiction, solutions will be aimed at punishing rather than helping.
Rather than taking a blaming stance toward individuals who were addicted to heroin, Haney, Glasser, and Lamont had the perception that their fellow community members deserved and needed help, and that something could be done to assist them in finding recovery. They were so passionate about this that they invested the course of their careers, time, energy, and even money (in the form of their own homes as collateral!) to address the heroin crisis. This demonstrates PPI’s legacy of perceiving the client as a human being separate from the problem, and one in which we continue to value and uphold today in the hope and potential we see for our clients. We believe wholeheartedly that recovery is possible, devoting our lives to treating addiction, mental health, and co-occurring disorders.
The second meaning I think the name “Perception Programs” relates to is how our clients perceive their internal and external worlds. When I was an undergrad I majored in Psychology and English, and as a mental health professional perhaps it seems I’ve chosen the former as my path and not used the latter. But I’ve found the work of therapy to be very much intertwined with both disciplines in that what makes us human is our capacity for storytelling. And the story we tell ourselves about our lives is not based on objective accuracy, but on how we perceive our reality; our perception shapes our identity, beliefs, and what we see possible for ourselves. We tend to behave in ways that are in alignment with who we think we are, and therefore our perceptions become our reality. At Perception Programs our ultimate purpose in the work that we do with clients is to challenge some of those perceptions and empower clients to be the authors of their own stories.
This is perfectly captured in Perception House’s early logo (below) shows an eye with an image of the globe as the pupil. The description below reads “the symbol of the drug center at 42 Walnut St. is an eye reflecting a view of the world, suggesting the new awareness Perception House members work toward.”
The globe reflected in the eye shows a widening and expansion of awareness or perception, and a shift in the narrow constraints of what is habitually “seen” to the recognition of a world of possibility. The idea of seeing the entire world also simultaneously denotes a universal oneness, or a recognition that our story is a part of the larger human story that we all share. It also suggests a transcendence from ourselves to something bigger than us: how we can use our unique gifts and experiences to serve the world. One of the most common themes I’ve heard from several clients at Perception Programs is how their experiences have helped them to have more empathy for others. To recognize that their pain has meaning because it connects them to others and allows them in turn to help in some way. Whenever I hear this, I recognize that their perception is expanding, and I wonder what the ripple effects will be.
This is the work we do at Perception Programs, as embodied in our name: “creating hope… changing lives.”