Generating systemic change along the addiction recovery continuum
Meet Monica Hernandez Sanchez- a leading advocate for increasing access to behavioral health services in South Texas. After earning her Bachelor of Social Work in 1998 and her Master of Science in Social Work in 2000 from The University of Texas-Pan American, she pursued a career as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, an Advanced Certified Prevention Specialist and an Internationally Certified Prevention Specialist. She recently was promoted to Chief Executive Officer at Behavioral Health Solutions in South Texas (BHSST).
Hernandez Sanchez helped to bring Texans Connecting Overdose Prevention Efforts (TxCOPE) to BHSST in the Spring of 2023. Due to her passion for innovation in behavioral health, Hernandez Sanchez saw the potential of TxCOPE’s data-driven science to assist in tracking overdoses and targeting outreach more efficiently in her surrounding community.
In a recent ARI interview, Monica Hernandez Sanchez delves into her journey in substance use prevention, how she rose to CEO at BHSST, and her commitment to being a recovery ally. She also expresses her excitement about leveraging technology, such as TxCOPE, to enhance the availability of resources and ultimately save lives.
At the end of our time, Hernandez Sanchez speaks on building real connections with the community in an effort to bring hope and trust into the community.
Tell me about your leadership style, kind of how it sets you apart, and really how it helps the mission and vision of BHSST team.
I started young in leadership and learned right away that I needed to educate myself on this because it was not something that’s normally taught. My background is in social work. I went through macro-level courses, but it’s not the same when you implement. It’s an ongoing journey for me, as far as learning and growing as a leader, because I really do believe that anyone in a leadership role is in a role of serving others. You’re not in a role to be authoritative or have a dictatorship going on.
I was able to grow and thrive because I had people in my life who allowed them who did not hinder that growth and supported and encouraged it. What makes a strong leader is someone that is going to provide the guidance, provide the resources and the support to see that growth. And the hope is that people stay but if they don’t, they have a positive connection.
The investment that we do in others comes back in one way or another and we develop stronger leaders that are going to be responsive and not reactive. I’m still developing, I really do strive to be a servant leader and to be able to allow those who are with me the platforms that they need to realize their potential and see their growth happen. I think that when you connect people to what they need and you try to listen and be responsive to their needs, it yields greater benefits.
You’ve been called an ally of recovery from Recovery People. What does that mean to you? And how do you feel like you are fulfilling that title?
To be an ally means that I promote and that I support in ways that I’m able to, within the parameters that I have to work with, and also to be responsive. When they (Recovery People) pursue funding or when they pursue developing services and programs – if there is something on my end and on our end as an organization that we can do to further that then we will do all that we can. That’s a part of our commitment to our communities, being able to assist others that are developing additional support and services that are going to benefit our communities. When you have an organization that has focused so much of its resources to realize a positive change overall, it’s like why wouldn’t you? As an ally, I just commit to moving them forward, pushing them forward in the different environments that I find myself. If someone speaks of recovery, then I do bring it to the table and make people aware of the resources that are out there.
Talking about your passion for working in the addiction field, you seem extremely passionate. Do you kind of have a personal story that is tied to this?
I didn’t know the connection I had (to the addiction field) until I got in this field. My connection started when I was working with survivors of sexual violence, and I had little over a fourth of them who presented with substance use disorders. I got more involved in that respect. I started my journey and I did a lot on prevention and went into intervention, treatment and recovery and then now we’re dipping our toes into supporting research so that we can know more about what the needs are.
I had a personal experience— one of my immediate family members went through substance use. It was like everything you learn and the best practices – it all goes out the window when it’s that close to home. It took me for a loop. It gave me another perspective that I didn’t have before. That really helped further fuel my focus and passion for helping. I went through just trying to support my loved one and trying to help them in ways that they wanted. It’s not easy to sit back and listen and to give help and support in ways that the person wants, not what you think is best, despite what our best practices tell us.
But having gone through that, it gave me a different perspective that helped just reignite what was there and shifted in ways that I could be more open. So we as an organization really strive to extend that openness and welcome people and meet them where they’re at.
You’ve been hailed for taking smart and progressive steps and collaborating with community organizations, such as TxCOPE, focusing on bringing new technology and ideas into addiction prevention and treatment. Why is that so important to you? How is that playing out right now?
When I first saw the presentation on TxCOPE, I was just like, ‘This is what we’ve been needing across our service area and across the state.’ Data collection reporting is always something that is cringy to people, except for those of us who are searching for the data to support the grant initiatives that we’re pursuing. Or those of us who are trying to find out where we are and how do we improve on that?
A while back, I was trying to identify those baselines of ‘Is anyone tracking overdoses? If they’re tracking, what are they using? If they’re not tracking, why not? The majority (of behavioral health organizations) were not tracking and it all tied back to either red tape within their systems or it was tied to what was billable. It left me floored.
We started working with partners to identify how we can start capturing information but it’s not easy. There are so many systems, so many policies and procedures that vary from entity or discipline that we hit a wall. When I saw the TxCOPE presentation at the (Texas Substance Use) symposium, I was just like ‘We’ve got to be a part of this.’ The more I sat and listened, the more I knew that it was important for it to be widespread because it’s not just about tracking data, it’s not just about reporting overdoses; it allows a connection to be formed for anyone, whether you’re a provider or a private citizen, anyone can access the resources that are available in their area. They now have access to a platform that allows them to submit what they know has happened.
At your fingertips you’re able to get access to the services, without having to wait for a referral, without having to have delays, it’s all there. There were additional benefits for our programs that were a bonus in using the system. It’s important that people place emphasis and importance on speaking the truth as to what’s going on when it pertains to opioid use, whether it’s successful or unsuccessful overdoses because there are a lot of incidents that are swept under the rug.
There’s a lot that has surfaced just from using the system that has helped us pivot on some of the strategies that we’ve been implementing to help really reach a wider population. It’s gonna change people’s lives; it has changed people’s lives and we want to push that forward. The success of this platform means so much to communities. It’s important that those of us who are in positions to push it forward do so to make sure that it’s success is there and that we’re also reporting back anything that might help strengthen the platform.
You’ve been an inspiration for many in the addiction and recovery field. What kind of hope would you give to those who are currently dealing with addiction and looking for help?
Everyone can be the inspiration, I don’t feel like I’m the inspiration, I’m inspired by those who are provided direct services and those that are that we are blessed to serve. It takes a lot for a person to come in and to respond to calls or home visits, approach events that we have, and inquire. It’s not lost on me the strength that it takes to do that. It takes a lot for people to come to ask themselves ‘What is it that I’m struggling with? What are the needs that I have and the support I don’t have or am lacking?’
The other day, I was talking to one of the team members about the importance of pushing forward content. There has not been an event or a presentation that I’ve been a part of that does not end with someone coming and speaking about where they’re at and some of the needs that they might have and how that information helped. It reminds me of the importance of being out there and sharing information to make sure that people are aware because it can change not just that person’s life, but all who are connected to them. It’s a snowball effect. It’s important that we all find ways to stay connected to what’s driving us to help. It’s important we make the most out of those opportunities, whether it’s a one-to-one conversation, a presentation and activity, someone is listening, they are going to connect, and that connection is going to lead to action.
It’s helping people so that they’re better able to turn around and not just keep a balance for themselves but to help others as well. We’re all connected. If we focus on finding a connection, you will find a connection, when you’re not trying to connect, you’re not going to find it, you’re going to lose the opportunities to help. And the cost to help is nothing. It doesn’t cost us anything. To me, it’s just important to find the time to keep that connection to what we’re doing. It’s not about inspiring others, it’s just about connecting and helping.