A Fountain of Hope for At-Risk Students

Let's Talk: Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Graduate School building

Susie Brooks, PhD, founder of Veritas Academy, felt powerless when students came into the classroom with substance use issues, or knew someone struggling. She recognized addiction as a disease—one that injures every community—but she didn't know how to help. So she attended the Graduate School of Addiction Studies to gain the tools and skills she needed to walk alongside her students and make an even greater impact. Tune in to learn more.

I've learned through the program, through my internship, with the goal of creating a space where we are intentionally work hard to prevent our students from choosing the substance use world.

Susie Brooks, PhD
Veritas Academy

0:00:13 Andrew Williams
Welcome to Let's Talk Recovery Equity. A series of conversations about how we can reach and help more people find freedom from addiction. This series offers us an opportunity to explore the complexities of mental health and substance use disorder. And to hopefully highlight new, promising pathways to hope, recovery, and healing. My name is Andrew Williams and I serve as the National Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And I am the host of this series. Today, I'm happy to welcome one of our newest Alumna of the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. Dr. Susie Brooks. Susie earned a Doctorate in the field of Education from Hamline University. And currently runs a nonprofit, K-12 school in Minnesota called Veritas Academy which she also founded over a decade ago. Thank you so much, Susie, for joining us today. Welcome to the show!

0:01:10 Dr. Susie Brooks
Thank you, thank you for having me. It's an honor!

0:01:13 Andrew Williams
Yes, well I've been really looking forward to this opportunity to be in conversation with you today. Especially after having seen you, been witness to you walking across the Commencement stage just a couple weeks ago. So I wanted to start there if that's okay with you. If you could tell us a little bit more about the degree that you earned from the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. And what was it like to walk across that Commencement stage a couple weeks ago.

0:01:37 Dr. Susie Brooks
Yes, I feel like a freshly minted Substance Use Counselor. And I'll tell you, it was really amazing to be up on stage and to see all the people that came to cheer us. But just to see my class to think, 'We did it!' Because about two years ago, when I began my journey, this whole field was new to me. And I did not know what I was doing. I just knew that I felt compelled to pursue this because I felt like there was a need for me to grow an understanding of substance use, but most importantly, to gain some skills that will enable me to be a better educator and to work with the families that we serve. So it was unbelievable, it was exciting. It was also strange because I thought, 'Oh my goodness, am I ready? I've got this degree now, do I know what I'm doing?' Because it is frightening, I take it very seriously. And it was important for me to really think about what it means now to be a graduate of Hazelden, one of the world's best, in fact the world's best organization in this particular field to think, 'Am I going to represent this organization well? Have I come up with something that I can actually use and do a good job with it?' So there is a lot of responsibility that comes with walking down that stage and getting your diploma. 

0:02:52 Andrew Williams
Mmm-hmm. Well thank you for that first answer. I so appreciate the window you've offered us into the meaning of earning that degree for you, hearing more about your sense of solidarity, right, with the cohort that walked across that stage with you. And what I hear is your deep sense of responsibility, right? To live up to kind of what that degree represents coming from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And you sort of shared with us a little bit of what your motivation was. As I shared in your introduction, you've already earned a Doctorate from Hamline University in the field of Education. What compelled you, what really prompted you to go and get this second degree, in Counseling?

0:03:32 Dr. Susie Brooks
Yes, I'm crazy because I don't seem to stop learning. [Andrew Williams smiles] But I think it's a good crazy because I do take my role as an Educator very seriously. When I look at each child that comes through the doors into our building, I see them as people. I see them as not only individuals coming to learn math or science or literature or language, I see them as people that are whole. They have feelings, they have backgrounds, they have families that they come from. And so, the journey really for me began in that first year, 2015. We opened our doors with very few students. We had been on the small side. And, you know, so we opened our doors to three students. And after the first week we got a call from the Child Protective Services actually that one of the students, one of those three students, was being placed in protective custody. And it did not take very long for us to realize that oh, it was the parent who was struggling with addiction. And had been forced into treatment. And shortly after that, we added two more students and they too came from a background of substance abuse. 

And throughout the years, since opening, I've discovered that substance use is something that is affecting all kinds of families. People from all walks of life. And the one that really did it for me was maybe about three years ago, four years ago, well maybe four years ago we had a student that came to us to high school. And he had just come back from a two-year treatment facility in Utah. And when that student came to us, he was one of the sweetest young boys—I want to say man but he wasn't quite a man yet—but he was a growing man, growing into manhood. Very sweet. But, you could tell he was still struggling. And I felt so powerless. I did not know what to do. I did not know how to come alongside him. I enjoyed having him in class. But during that first semester, he actually struggled with suicidal ideation. He told us he had taken a bunch of pills wanting to end his life. When it happened a second time I just thought, 'How do I come alongside?' And that's when I thought that if I'm going to be an effective educator, I not only have to understand the world of substance use, but I'd better come up with ways and strategies within our education system to work with these families, to work with these students, not only to help them when they're already using, but to figure out how can we cut back, how can we prevent these students from getting into the world of substance use? Because I knew that adults struggled with this, adults that are doing this struggle with it. And it's something that for many of them, they can't help it, they can't control it; it's a disease that is just hurting our country. So that was what began to inspire me and eventually by 2021, I thought it is time to do this, I better do it otherwise I'm never gonna do something about this problem. And I thought it's good to do it with the mindset that I want to learn all I can and then to figure out a way to implement, preventative strategies so that all our community, our teachers, our staff members understand that we want to create an environment where we can meet our students where they are. That we can be the support they need to help them make different choices, to make them take a different path. Because life sucks, life is difficult, and for many of them, the only way they can cope with the challenges of life is to turn to substances as a coping mechanism. 

0:06:56 Andrew Williams
Oh, Dr. Brooks, thank you so much for such a rich answer and offering a sense of what really inspired you, sparked you, to add Addiction Counseling to kind of the suite of services that you're able to offer and others at your school are able to offer the young people. And what I take away from your comments is, you know, this deep radical ethic of care for students, your proximity to their everyday lived experiences is what really prompted you to kind of see the need, right, to expand the kind of services that your school could offer students. And in fact, their entire families. [Dr. Brooks nods] If I could run with that line of thinking a bit. And, you know, you're right there on the frontline working with young people and families as well. I'm wondering if you could speak to the ways in which your experiences at the school, your experiences in the Graduate School, have really shaped how you approach supporting young people who are struggling with addiction or substance use disorder. I mean, are there particular kinds of needs that our young people have, say in comparison to adults?

0:08:03 Dr. Susie Brooks
Yes. One of the things that was very eye-opening for me was during the internship. Hazelden's program is built beautifully. To be able to be in the classroom and learn all the concepts about substance use, even mental health and counseling—and then to go into an internship and to experience, to see firsthand, what it is that you're learning—was very impactful for me. So, one of the first things I discovered, I did my internship in the Women's Recovery Unit and it didn't take very long for me to begin to see patterns that many of the patients that were in treatment spoke of when they first used. They started when they were in middle school, they were at that ripe age of 12, 13, 14, when they began to use. And I found that for many of them, it was just normal things that many of us experienced. Sometimes it's feelings of abandonment, maybe even well-meaning parents have not been present for these young children the way they would like to. And these children begin to hurt in ways that are so deep but they don't have the language to express it. So when they get that first temptation, something that gives them that feeling of, 'Oh my goodness, I feel like a have a sense of belonging when I do this. I feel accepted when I go in this place where I can have a drink or take a drug,' or something like that. Those things begin to meet the profound needs that these young people have. And so, those things are very eye-opening for me when I have story after story after story of these women who are beautiful, some of them very successful in their careers. But are struggling with addiction and tracing it back to when they were young, when they were still—when their brains were still forming, that that's when the problem began for them.

0:09:44 Andrew Williams
Mmm-hmm. Oh thank you so much for that response. My understanding, Dr. Brooks, is that your graduate studies at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's Graduate School of Addiction Studies, was partly supported by an NBCC Fellowship? I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about that fellowship, what the mission and kind of purpose of that fellowship is. And what your experience was as an NBCC Fellow. [smiles]

0:10:11 Dr. Susie Brooks
Yes! Oh yeah, that was such a gift! So if you're like me, and I know there are other students out there like myself who are probably working for nonprofits, as a Founder of a nonprofit, I'm not even at a place where I can pay myself. So the cost of graduate school was really high. It's a huge sacrifice for us to give up a daytime job because of the hours that we could meet. So you can't even say let me look for a part-time job and do this. So, when I found out about the NBCC Fellowship, I thought, 'Wow! That money sounds good!' So motivation—for most of us, it's money. If I can cut my cost, if I don't have to take out a loan for this amount of money, I'm gonna do that. But the more I read about the NBCC Foundation and the program, especially for the Minority Fellowship Program, I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is something that is amazing.' For people like myself, as a woman of color, in Northern Minnesota, there are some things that are just unique to us. That, you know, we don't have the kind of network that others might have. Not in complaining, not saying this with any ill feelings, but just the reality that for some of us, our options are limited. In terms of funding or just networking. To be able to enable us to succeed.

And then, I personally am an orphan. My mom died when I was six years old. And she had been raped, that's how I came to be. So, I really didn't have anyone. So to find an organization that cares about the unique needs of minorities, but also recognizing that we may be underrepresented in this field in terms of not only the profession itself, but also, in receiving care. And so those were two things that were really interesting. And then the more I read it, I thought, 'Okay, one of the groups that I serve is adolescents.' And I was aware that yes, there are a lot of programs that serve adults, you know, men, women, older citizens, but, for young people, maybe because even as a country, as a nation, we don't quite understand that young people can struggle with addiction. We don't have a lot of resources. Yes, there are some recovery high schools, there are some programs that serve young adolescents, but, there aren't many. So all those things were part of the NBCC Fellowship that just drew me to it. And I thought, 'This is a place that I wanna be.'

The bonus, what I did not expect, was to actually begin to build relationships, to find a community that I can connect with. People that I can talk to. Lifelong friends that I'm forming through this fellowship. That we've continued to be supportive. It provided mentorship for us. And that was also such a huge blessing. Then the conference, just the network that you build nationwide, meeting people that are doing the same thing that you're doing, even if it's with different populations. But, the fact that we are recognizing that there are some groups that are still underrepresented. Whether it's in terms of services, support, or even in terms of just in the profession itself. So it was really an amazing opportunity for me and I am so grateful for the NBCC Fellowship. [nods]

0:13:10 Andrew Williams
No, thank you for again, giving us a window into the meaning of that fellowship for you and other participants in it. And really some of your experiences, you know, as an NBCC Fellow. And I'm so glad that you could find a community there that helped nourish and support you. A community that's, you know, still a part of your everyday kind of professional work that you can lean on. And just, you know, in our short time here talking together, it's clear to me that I'm sure you've added tremendous value to the experience of other fellows in that program as well. [Dr. Brooks nods, smiles] And congratulations on earning that prestigious fellowship as well. And my hope is that others listening to our show today will go back and explore, you know, the opportunity provided by the NBCC Fellowship as well. 

0:13:56 Dr. Susie Brooks
Yes. [nods, smiles]

0:13:56 Andrew Williams
Considering your experience with this fellowship and your now second graduate degree, I mean, how might your experience as a fellow, how might your new degree, impact your overall career trajectory? Which is another way of saying, hey, is there anything next for you? [smiles]

0:14:13 Dr. Susie Brooks
[smiles] Yes, yes. I had some very clear goals coming into the graduate program, but also for the fellowship. The fellowship actually forced me to really think about what I wanted to do with this degree. And I think that provided another level of accountability, so that my last three years were not in vain. So my plan was to come and implement preventative studies at my school. But I did not know what I was doing. I did not know what that was going to look like. So the fellowship helped me articulate at least my desired outcome. And then also, I was very fortunate enough to be able to get approval for an Independent Study in my last semester in the graduate program. So I worked with my Professor along with the NBCC team to come up with a plan to map out what it would look like for me to begin to do these things. At my school. For me to really accomplish the goals. Because it would really be a waste if I just got it, I thought, 'Oh I had this good idea, but I did nothing with it.' So between the Independent Study and the NBCC program, I have put together a strategy that I believe is very strong and profound. That we are going to begin to implement within my school coming this fall. We've started having the conversations, I used the spring semester while I still had the blessing of having a Professor work with me, to begin to have that conversation. To talk to my staff, to talk to my teachers, even the families to say, 'What would it look like if we were to create a space where each child coming here knows that they are seen, that they are loved, that they are cared for, that they are protected? What would it look like for us to do that?' Because at the end of the day, that's what it came down to. We came down to the recognition that children who feel safe, who feel loved, who feel seen, who feel cared for, who feel protected, are less likely to turn to substance use. And so that's been what we're trying to do. So I looked at a few models and we came up with the idea that for us, it would be great to change the culture, to really change the culture, by having conversations. By being intentional about how we do things every day.

For example, even things like staffing. It was very good to be able to experience an internship program that has that daily. So I've copied some of the things that I learned during my internship like staffing, and the fact that our staffing can be student-centered where we come and just like the staffing at Hazelden is patient-centered, we can come together as staff and instead of talking about kids and talk about, 'Oh, can you believe what this student was doing?' 

0:16:39 Andrew Williams
Yes. [chuckles]

0:16:39 Dr. Susie Brooks
We can come and say, 'Now, tell me about this child. What are this child's strengths, how we can celebrate, how can we support this child to grow? In that strength, in that passion they have, so that they can feel seen and recognized and really support them and help them know they add so much value to this place. They add so much value to this world. So all those things have been so exciting for me to take from all these different places and to say, 'I'm going to create an environment where we can apply these things that I've learned through the program, through my internship, with the goal of creating a space where we are intentionally working hard to prevent our students from choosing the substance use world.' Yeah.

0:17:16 Andrew Williams
Well, Dr. Brooks, I am so inspired. And I'm sure many of our listeners and viewers are as well by your deep, authentic, radical ethic of care for students and your ability to see them and embrace them in their full humanity. [Dr. Brooks nods] And it's really wonderful to hear how your experience as a Fellow, your experience as a graduate student, are really pushing you to deepen and expand and strengthen the sort of substance use disorder treatment kinds of services and supports that you're able to offer young people and family at your school. And I'm already looking forward to our next conversation. I hope we can have another one because I really do wanna come back and circle back and learn more about how you're putting your vision to reality. And I wanna learn more about the beautiful outcomes that I know are gonna be out in front of you, your school, and your students and their families as well. 

0:18:06 Dr. Susie Brooks
Yes. [smiles]

0:18:07 Andrew Williams
Unfortunately these conversations always come to an end much, much too quickly. But I do wanna ask you one question that we ask all of our guests. And that is if you could share a message with anyone in our audience who might be struggling with, or knows someone who might be struggling, with addiction. What might be your message for them today? 

0:18:26 Dr. Susie Brooks
Number one thing I would say is you are not alone. You are not alone in this. The second thing is you are loved. There's someone out there that is just waiting to connect with you and listen and help you in this journey as you struggle. So you are not alone. You are loved. And find that somebody that will be with you and walk with you through this journey. Whether it's a substance use counselor, mental health professional, or just a friend that is supportive of you. They are there for you and they want to walk with you. [nods]

0:18:56 Andrew Williams
Oh, thank you, Dr. Brooks, for those final caring words. [turns to camera] To all of you listening or watching today, thank you so much for taking the time to join us for this important and soul-growing conversation. And Dr. Brooks, thank you for sharing your wisdom, your experience and perspectives with us today. We are so grateful and appreciative of the advocacy and the life-changing healing work that you do each day.

0:19:22 Dr. Susie Brooks
Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure and quite an honor to be part of this. Let's continue to do this good work that we're doing. Thank you. [smiles] 

0:19:30 Andrew Williams
Yes, I look forward to our next conversation already. [turns back to camera] To everyone out there, please let your friends and colleagues know about our series. And we hope you will view future episodes of Let's Talk Recovery Equity in the future. Together, we can accelerate hope and healing for all those in need. As we work to change how the world thinks about addiction and recovery equity. Again, thank you for joining the show.

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