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Vinland’s individualized treatment helps those with cognitive disabilities reach sobriety

Courtesy of Vinland Center
Vinland National Center's Loretto campus

Many clients come to Vinland National Center, an addiction treatment program designed for adults with cognitive disabilities, feeling like it is their last chance to get sober.

“The majority of our clients have been through multiple treatments elsewhere and were not successful,” said Mary Roehl, Vinland’s executive director. “They weren’t able to keep up in AA meetings: The programs didn’t fit their intellectual abilities. They might not read well or retain information, so they felt lost and left behind. They — and their friends and families — fear that they’ll never be able to recover.” 

It’s not an unwarranted concern. Sixty-eight percent of Vinland’s clients have experienced a traumatic brain injury, something that makes people particularly vulnerable to substance abuse, said Vinland Marketing Manager Amy Miller. 

“According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disability, 50 percent of adults with brain injuries deal with an addiction issue,” she said. “In the general public, the rate of addiction is more like one in five.” Add to that a struggle to fit in the framework of traditional addiction therapy, and, Miller said, “Our clients are starting out with the odds stacked against them.”

In the past, addicted adults with cognitive disabilities found no clear place or program equipped to support their recovery.

“Years ago, people like our clients would wind up in a nursing home or maybe occasionally in treatment at the back of the class,” said Duane Reynolds, Vinland’s program director. Helping adults with disabilities beat addiction takes experience. Reynolds should know: He’s worked in the field for over 30 years.

“It takes a high level of patience to work people with brain injuries,” he said. “You have to be slow and focused. People like our clients need extra attention. But it can work. I see it all the time.”

A history of success

This year, Vinland celebrates 25 years of making recovery work for people with cognitive disabilities. The center, which is based in Loretto with an outpatient program in Northeast Minneapolis, was originally founded in 1976, thanks to a Bicentennial gift from the Norwegian government.

Vinland’s original incarnation was as a volunteer-based center that focused on providing healthy activities for people with a range of physical and developmental disabilities. The concept was based on a Norwegian program known as the Beitostølen Healthsports Center. In 1990, Vinland’s focus was narrowed to providing chemical dependency treatment for clients with cognitive disabilities.

The Vinland recovery program, which now employs some 82 people, started out small, averaging six inpatient clients at a time. “As the years have gone on and we gained recognition, the program grew and grew,” Roehl said. “For a long time we had 41 residential beds, then three years ago, we built an addition that added another 20 beds.” The average treatment stay is 30-45 days.

>A Vinland Staff member canoeing with clients on Lake Independence.
Courtesy of Vinland Center
A Vinland Staff member canoes with a client on Lake Independence.

Because the traditional AA model of hour-long group meetings doesn’t always work well for their disabled population, the Vinland program is designed with the unique needs of clients in mind.

“Sometimes our clients can’t sit for extended periods of time because of their injuries,” Reynolds explained. “We offer a lot of individual therapy, which is good for people who have a hard time concentrating when there is scattered background noise. Our staff understands how to work with individuals with intellectual disabilities. We are specially trained. Our approach is patient, individualized, supportive and respectful.” 

The Vinland model, with its singular focus, is unique. “There are less than a handful of programs like this in the United States,” Reynolds said. “We draw clients from across the country.” 

Recovery through physical activity

Another focus of the Vinland recovery program is physical activity, or therapeutic exercise, something that has its roots in the organization’s beginnings as a healtsports center. All Vinland clients, no matter their physical abilities, are required to establish a routine of physical activity during their stay at the center, and afterward, during their continued recovery. During treatment, they work with therapeutic exercise staff in the center’s well-equipped gym, and outside on the large, open campus and nearby Lake Independence.  

Jeff Willert, Vinland fitness and wellness manager, explained that all clients are assessed for physical ability as they enter the program.   

“We do a pre-assessment of their physical health,” Willert said. “We check their strength and flexibility and endurance, their ability to balance, their posture, brain speed and coordination. We compile the numbers of where they are at the beginning of the program, and then we work hard together for six weeks. At the end of the program, we do another set of measurements to show clients just how far they’ve come.”

Willert said that for many clients, clear evidence of physical improvement serves as an incentive for better self care. 

“They love to see the improvement they’ve made over the weeks they stay here,” Willert said. “They feel stronger. Their pain levels go down. They see that if they take care of themselves physically, they feel better mentally, which helps them want to make a better life for themselves. That usually translates to ending their chemical dependency.”

Vinland clients also take personal health classes, basic life-skills courses where they learn about building a healthy life for themselves in the real world.

“One of the things we talk about in class is finding meaningful activities for each day, like church, school, volunteer work or support group,” Willert said. “A lot of disabled addicted folks who relapse do so out of boredom and not having meaningful things to do with their lives. We address this issue actively. We talk about how when they wake up in the morning they need to have a plan for that day that doesn’t involve sitting around feeling bored and isolated. We provide them with alternatives to abusing chemicals.”

Individualized care

Because it takes focused attention to help people with cognitive disabilities recover from chemical addiction, Vinland keeps its client-counselor ratio low, at 6-1. Each client has unique needs, Reynolds said; this means that sometimes a counselor will have to slow down to what feels like a crawl and narrow in on developing a client’s strongest and most positive attributes. By doing so, people see that they have the strength it takes to succeed.

“We don’t give up on people,” Willert said. “We start doing the right things for each person. That’s nutrition, exercise, brain games, whatever it takes. That’s what sets us apart from other programs.”

A Vinland staff member biking with a client along a lakeside trail.
Courtesy of Vinland Center
A Vinland staff member bikes with a client along a lakeside trail.

Another thing that sets Vinland apart from other programs is the seriously run-down physical and emotional condition of many of the people it serves. Vinland staff likes to say that they take in people whom other programs consider to be a lost cause. At Vinland, Roehl said, people who once felt hopeless learn that they can conquer their addictions, and amazing things happen. 

“We had a lady here years ago,” Willert recalled. “She came in with neuropathy in both legs as a result of chronic alcoholism. She had weakness and numbness and tingling in her legs. Her neurologist had said that she’d never walk again. I put her on a bike and she was able to move the pedal for just three revolutions. We accentuated that accomplishment. Every day she came in and did a bit more. At the end of her treatment she walked out of here on her own, without a wheelchair or a walker. She was using just a cane. And she went on to live a really full life. The miracles that go on here every day are unbelievable.”

Program results

Just as they are measured for their physical abilities before and after spending time at Vinland National Center, clients are also surveyed about their overall experience and addiction status six months and then a year after leaving the program.

“At follow-up interviews, clients often tell me, ‘This is the first treatment center where I’ve been treated like a person and not just a number. People really listen here,’” Miller said. “Seventy-eight percent self report that they remain sober since they’ve left. They also have a 40 percent reduction in chronic pain levels. There is also a significant reduction in incarceration rates and fewer hospital stays.” 

It’s not that every person who spends time at Vinland National Center makes a full recovery from their addictions, but many people do succeed in turning their lives around. Significant cognitive disability often means social disability, like lack of employment opportunities, limited social outlets and strained family relationships.

“I think a person without a brain injury would have an easier time getting sober than the folks we work with here,” Reynolds said. “Nondisabled people usually have more opportunities in their lives. They might have school, they might have satisfying work, they might have strong family connections. These things provide incentive to recover from addiction. A person with a brain injury might not always have access to those things. That makes full recovery more difficult to attain. That’s why I am so impressed when our clients finally put a stop to their addiction. These people are the true heroes.” 

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