At age 19, Pat McKiernan had a drug problem. He had been evicted from his apartment. His health was suffering.
“I had nowhere to go. Nobody wanted anything to do with me,” he recalls.
He was at something of a crossroads. For countless others, circumstances like these have marked the beginning of a downward spiral leading to a lifetime of addiction, homelessness, incarceration and, ultimately, an untimely death. A life wasted.
But McKiernan was influenced by some kind people who guided him to a drug and alcohol recovery house.
“I accepted their help and it changed my life forever.”
Today, Patrick McKiernan, PhD is a nationally respected authority on the treatment of addiction. He is the founder of Sober Solutions, which operates transitional treatment facilities in Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, as well as Indianapolis, Indiana. Sober Solutions facilitates the three most critical factors leading to successful treatment, according to McKiernan: a long-term relationship between client and counselor, employment and immersion in a social support system.
A dedicated educator, McKiernan—together with his colleague Dr. Richard Cloud—developed the drug and alcohol counselor specialization at the Kent School of Social Work at the University of Louisville, where he has taught for more than a decade. He also is an extremely active and engaged faculty mentor at CalSouthern, where he helped develop the curriculum for the university’s Pre-Baccalaureate Certificate in Addiction Studies.
Always seeking innovative ways to more effectively serve the addiction population, McKiernan and Cloud have developed a website and smartphone application that gives those in recovery a quick and easy way to accurately assess their daily risk of relapse—and that enables those who comprise the individual’s support system to intervene before relapse occurs.
Over the years, McKiernan also has designed addiction treatment programs for pregnant women and their children, as well as for the HIV-positive population. He helped start the first “halfway back” program in Kentucky, a long-term treatment for prisoners who had left the corrections system, but were considered technical violators of their parole due to their addiction.
“I’ve had a long and extraordinarily satisfying career helping others,” says McKiernan. “Professionally, I’ve pretty much been able to do everything that I have wanted to do. How many people can say that? And it all began to fall into place the moment I allowed others to help me.”
CalSouthern caught up with Dr. McKiernan for a wide-ranging conversation regarding his career and the addiction counseling field, as well as his thoughts on online education.
CalSouthern: What are some of the most satisfying and challenging moments you’ve experienced as a drug counselor?
Dr. Patrick McKiernan: When I think back on rewarding moments, I remember the Christmas just after I had opened up my first Sober Solutions facility. I wanted to pack up the family and bring a Christmas dinner downtown to the men at the facility. My wife went along with it because she loves me, but I could tell she wasn’t 100-percent on board. She was more than a little trepidatious, in part because our daughter was only two or three at the time.
But we went down there and she spent the evening talking with the men, who, at 18 to 24 years of age, weren’t much older than our son, who was then around 16. They shared stories about their circumstances and talked about how they were so grateful for the facility, which took them in when no one else would have them. They talked about their families and Christmas memories. Clean of drugs and alcohol, their personalities really shined through.
I’ll never forget when after we had packed the car to go home, she turned to me and said, “I don’t care what we have to do. We’re never letting this place go.” It was a special moment I won’t forget.
Another story illustrates the dark side. About a year ago, there was a guy I had worked with for a long time who had relapsed and wanted to return to the facility. I didn’t have room in Louisville, but I allowed him to go to the Indianapolis house where I had him under close monitoring. However, one night, instead of going to his AA meeting, he bought some heroin and, as I remember, an entire fifth of whiskey. He consumed it all. He was found unconscious in the bathroom. He died, never regaining consciousness.
I had to call his mom and explain this to her. I’ll just say that’s the ugly part of it. Events like these stay with you forever.
CalSouthern: What are your thoughts on the state of the field—are you optimistic or pessimistic?
McKiernan: I am optimistic about it. When I first started, we had lots of talented people doing great work—many of our methodologies were quite sound—but we didn’t have a lot of scientific research supporting what we were doing. Because of that, there was a wholesale attack on the addiction treatment field. We were told our results were poor and the science was lacking. Our funding was cut dramatically.
The profession rallied around the need to demonstrate the effectiveness of our work through empirical study. It became a focus and great research has emerged over the past 20 years. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about what we had always known to be effective. And there are now hundreds of evidence-based approaches for alcohol- and drug-addicted clientele in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.
Now, insurance companies are providing coverage for these scientifically supported programs. More and more people are gaining access to treatment. We still have a ways to go, but I am extremely optimistic about the direction the field is headed.
CalSouthern: In your opinion, what are some professional or personal qualities required of an effective addiction counselor?
McKiernan: You have to have a love of learning. With constant evolution and advancement in the field, there’s always something to learn. And you shouldn’t restrict your reading to those methods that you agree with. Sometimes, people become married to one particular method. But any method has its limits. So it’s important to remain open to other ideas, theories and philosophies. The more you have in your toolkit, the better.
Also, it’s important to remember that we are all human, with human limitations. You need to recognize this and understand that you can’t save everyone. If that’s something you can’t accept, then you probably shouldn’t get into this work.
CalSouthern: Could you tell us more about the app you’ve developed?
McKiernan: For years, my colleague Dr. Cloud and I have been engaged in an effort to develop something that improves clients’ understanding of their risk for relapse, but we didn’t make much progress. We were unsure how we were going to pull it off.
Ultimately, we figured mobile engagement was the key; that would give us the ability to engage clients where they were, in a natural state, so to speak. We developed a website and app called Altus Day 2 Day. It’s a personalized, easy-to-use, daily survey that allows you to assess your risk for relapse. It takes just a minute or two. Not only does it give you immediate feedback regarding your risk for relapse, it will also alert members of your support group if you are at high risk, giving them the opportunity to intervene before relapse occurs. It will also alert members of your support group if you do not take the inventory on a given day.
CalSouthern: You were instrumental in helping develop CalSouthern’s Pre-Baccalaureate Certificate in Addiction Studies. In your opinion, what makes the certificate such an effective program?
McKiernan: The courses are all carefully designed to provide a comprehensive understanding of how to deliver effective treatment of addiction. Students will learn ethics, they will develop group skills and a survey class teaches them how to assess, screen and intervene on addiction problems. Another course that I find particularly valuable helps students develop their individual counseling style. In my opinion, it’s an excellent selection of core courses that build on one another, all focused on specific issues facing this population. For example, they will learn sound counseling theory, but via case studies and other materials that apply it to actual scenarios they will encounter as an addiction counselor. I think it’s an excellent program.
CalSouthern: You have extensive teaching experience in online education. Do you notice any characteristics shared by your most successful students?
McKiernan: The students of mine who perform best treat their education in the way that they might treat a career responsibility. They’re dedicated to it. They don’t allow significant time to elapse between study sessions—they stay current with it. This really helps students stay in sync with the cohesiveness and progression of the program.
When students take long periods of time away from their studies between assignments, it is definitely reflected in their work. When they stick with the material in a consistent way, a deeper, more sound and more holistic understanding of the concepts develops and becomes apparent in their assignments.
CalSouthern: Do you have any favorite experiences or memories associated with your career at CalSouthern?
McKiernan: I love graduation. I get to come to California and the event venue is fantastic. And I get to connect with my students and re-connect with Dean Grimes, Dr. Weathers, Dr. Shaw and all the other great personalities that I have met as a result of working at CalSouthern.
Another favorite experience is participating in doctoral learners’ oral defenses. I have been deeply moved by these, and not just because of the students’ dedication to their doctoral project or the expertise that they display—it’s because of the obvious passion they have for the topic. It’s an honor to witness it. I find myself thinking: “And I get paid for this!”
CalSouthern: What are some of your future plans?
McKiernan: I just plan to continue to build on my recovery house model and the relapse risk-assessment technology. And I want to become the very best faculty mentor I can be. That’s my goal. When I think about how I can sit at my computer and help people all over the world learn and become a better professional, it’s just humbling.