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A network of sisters

Applying the science of social media and data to addiction in Oklahoma

Women in Recovery’s Connections app

Lindsay McAteer’s life changed Aug. 8, 2014 when she was sitting in a Tulsa drug treatment facility suffering the early symptoms of methamphetamine withdrawal. It was the first time she’d been sober in 20 years. A few months earlier, she was pulled over by a group of unmarked police cars. She later learned they had been surveilling her for weeks.

That day, she was in Broken Arrow to deliver pounds of meth stowed away in her trunk. McAteer was facing 12 years to life in prison for trafficking, but at the last moment she received a lifeline. She was eligible for the Tulsa-based Family and Children’s Services program called Women in Recovery (WIR), which could save her from spending the next decade in prison.

“I showed up to court having gotten high on the way there,” McAteer said. “I was still using right up until the day I entered the program. None of it seemed real to me, but my attorney was amazing. She honestly didn’t even really give me another choice. She said this program is willing to take you, and this is what you’re doing. She saw something in me. Had I not been eligible for Women in Recovery, I’d have definitely gone to prison.”

The entire trajectory of McAteer’s life (and the lives of hundreds of women like her) has been altered by WIR. Recently, the intensive outpatient drug treatment program has incorporated 21st century data innovation and smartphone technology to help Oklahoma women battling addiction.

Every morning, an app on McAteer’s smartphone asks her the question, “How confident are you that you can maintain your abstinence?” Though she’s been sober four years, McAteer still finds the question and the apps presence on her phone comforting.

“I use the app daily,” she said. “It’s been helpful in a lot of ways, but the thing that probably means the most to me is that once a week it asks me to rate different aspects of my life. Including my level of anxiety, whether I’m sleeping well, whether I’m spending time with my friends and family who support me, if I’ve been involved in any risky situations. It just helps me to stay aware and also to track the pattern of what’s happening in my life.”

The app is called Connections and it was developed by A-CHESS (Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System) for participants in WIR. The first step in using the app is creating a kind of social network for addicts in recovery.

“The online community and connection is so important. Research shows that when someone is struggling they’re more likely to reach out to a peer than to a treatment person to ask for help,” said Lindsey Crawford, the coordinator of continuing care at WIR.

After downloading the app, patients enter the names of three contacts who can help keep them accountable—the digital equivalent of a sponsor. The concept is to place an invisible guardrail of community and support around these women, some of whom have never had a support system.

The data WIR has collected shows 40 percent of participants had parents who were incarcerated before they turned 18. Children whose parents go to prison are disproportionately likely to end up in prison themselves. They are more likely to be poor, fight depression and anxiety, and often more likely to turn to drugs when these situations overwhelm them. It’s an ugly Rube Goldberg contraption designed for failure that has contributed to Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate—now the highest in the world.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the recidivism rate for women in Oklahoma is 14.4 percent. The rate for graduates from WIR is less than half of that. This data-driven process works. Four years after her arrest, McAteer is a different person. Her five-year-old son, Talon, is the center of her life. She hasn’t touched an illegal substance since the day she entered the program. McAteer is currently pursuing an MBA, and she works as a housing compliance specialist for the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma. The untapped potential of women like McAteer and those like her is too important for Oklahoma to squander.

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