SAMHSA Voice Awards Honor Walter Ginter’s MARS™ Project

By John Lavitt 08/14/18

Many people on MAT feel unwelcome at meetings, and this sense of alienation and rejection often leads to relapse. That's where MARS™ comes in. We want people on MAT to be embraced and accepted in recovery.

Walter Ginter
Walter Ginter set up MARS™ as an alternative both to treatment centers hostile to MAT and non-supportive recovery support groups like many NA meetings. PC: John Lavitt

Held at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in Westwood, the 13th annual SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration) Voice Awards recognized an essential figure in the national battle against the opioid epidemic. As the founder of the Medicated Assisted Recovery Support (MARS™) Project, Walter Ginter was honored with a Special Recognition Award for his efforts in combating the opioid epidemic and helping people who use Medicated-Assisted Treatment (MAT) stick to the path of recovery. In the greater recovery community-- ranging from treatment centers across the country to 12-step groups—many people have a negative view of MAT which has led to a lack of support for people trying to overcome opioid addiction. 

SAMHSA has been at the helm of national efforts to destigmatize the medications typically used in MAT such as buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone. Beyond supporting physicians and researchers, SAMHSA has tried to reduce the negativity associated with traditional perspectives on opioid recovery. According to many loud voices in Narcotics Anonymous (NA), if a person is on medication that has been prescribed to help them overcome opioid withdrawal symptoms or to refrain from using heroin or other illicit opioids, then they are not really clean. In contrast to this judgmental perspective, the SAMHSA website states: “Medicated-Assisted Treatment (MAT) is the use of FDA- approved medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a ‘whole-patient’ approach to the treatment of substance use disorders.”

Indeed, a “whole-patient” approach is what is needed to stem the tide of what has become the greatest drug epidemic in U.S. history. With the introduction of fentanyl and other powerful prescription narcotics to the illegal drug trade, the stakes are higher than ever before. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Every day, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids.”

Given such a devastating statistic, Arne W. Owens hopes the SAMHSA Voice Awards can raise awareness by bringing the recovery community together with the entertainment industry. As the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Owens was the highest-ranking member of SAMHSA at the Voice Awards Show on August 8, 2018. Asked by The Fix how the Voice Awards can make an impact on the opioid epidemic, Owens said, “We hope to incentivize more positive portrayals in film and television of treatment and recovery for substance use disorders. We believe hearing positive stories about treatment and recovery helps to inspire others, shifting negative attitudes. For example, it would be good to see writers and directors positively represent MAT in film and television. Beyond raising awareness, such representation would help to reduce stigma.”

Walter Ginter is an ideal example of someone who has dedicated his life to reducing stigma and raising positive awareness about MAT. Dedicated to improving the recovery community, Ginter has been a board member of both the National Alliance for Medication Assisted Treatment and Faces & Voices of Recovery. In collaboration with the New York Division of Substance Abuse, Yeshiva University and the National Alliance for Medication Assisted (NAMA) Recovery, Walter Ginter became the founding Project Director of the Medication Assisted Recovery Support (MARS™) Project.

MARS™ is designed to provide peer recovery support to persons whose recovery from opioid addiction is assisted by medication. To be in a MARS™ group through the Peer Recovery Network PORTAL™, a person has to be in a MAT program. As Ginter writes on the MARS™ website, “The Peer Recovery Network was created as a way for peers in recovery to more effectively organize their community, to communicate with each other, and to have a stronger voice for advocacy efforts.”

In 2012, Ginter helped create the Beyond MARS Training Institute at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. With a variety of models and options, Ginter created a curriculum where opioid treatment programs and recovery professionals can be trained to implement MARS™. The original MARS™ project has expanded from its beginnings to include 17 programs across the United States and two in Haiphong, Vietnam. Ginter believes this is just the beginning of the expansion, both nationally and internationally.

On the red carpet before the Voice Awards ceremony, Walter Ginter spoke with us about the struggles he has faced as an early advocate of MAT, revealing both an innate decency and a keen sense of humor. With a smile, he mentioned how people always ask him why MARS™ uses the trademark symbol. Some of them even think that he’s trying to corner the name of the planet for profit.

But MARS™ has a trademark for a particular reason, Ginter explains. In the vast majority of cases, the organization does not mind when people use the name. They do enforce the trademark, however, when people who are not certified as trainers try to set-up MARS™ groups and conduct MARS™ trainings. In most cases, rather than follow the protocols, they are hijacking the name to do what they want and make a profit. As an organization with a mission that envisions “the transformation of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to medication-assisted recovery (MAR),” Ginter believes that protecting the integrity of the organization must remain a priority.

Sitting inside, away from the hot Los Angeles sun and the red carpet, Walter Ginter went into more detail about the early struggles that MARS™ faced. “Very few people come to MAT as their first course of treatment. In the vast majority of cases, they’ve already been to 12-step meetings, particularly Narcotics Anonymous. Although they initially felt welcomed at those meetings, those feelings shift after they start to work a program that includes medication-assisted treatment. Suddenly, you no longer feel welcome at the meetings, and this sense of alienation and rejection often leads to relapse. To fill in the resulting hole, we want MARS™ to give the same type of mutual support that 12-step provides. We want people on MAT to be embraced and accepted in recovery.“

We asked Walter Ginter to detail this rejection in context. Scratching his chin, he said, “Look, telling people that they are not in recovery is evil. People on MAT were told that they couldn’t share in NA meetings since they weren’t really clean. By not allowing people to talk in meetings, they become alienated. However, it’s worse than alienation because it undermines what they’re doing to get well. The thought process goes something like this: If taking the medication that I need means I’m not in recovery, then why should I act like I’m in recovery? What does it matter if I do a line of coke on the side or have a drink?”

Walter Ginter saw too many people on the verge of getting well through medication-assisted treatment subvert their recovery with this line of thinking and some other thought processes as well. Not wanting to take any chances, he set up MARS™ as a viable alternative both to treatment centers hostile to MAT and non-supportive recovery support groups like many NA meetings. In the past several years, MARS™ has had remarkable success with people on MAT. It has helped them find true recovery, a fact that has left initial opponents quite frustrated.

In fact, Ginter ended our talk with a description of one of these encounters. As he told the following story, Ginter’s smile appeared again. “One day an opioid treatment counselor from a local New York rehab burst into my office and banged her fist on my desk. She said ‘What kind of voodoo are you doing here?’ Surprised by such an accusation, I replied “Excuse me?” She went on to explain: “Well. I have a client that wouldn’t stop doing coke. She would get off the heroin, but she always tested positive for cocaine. Since she’s joined your program, now she’s not only off the heroin, she’s no longer testing positive for coke or any other drug. How did you make that happen?’”

Ginter shook his head as if he’d gone through the same rigmarole many times before. He describes how he sat the recovery counselor down and explained to her quietly: “There’s no magic or voodoo or anything else. We simply gave her medication that worked while telling her that she was now in true recovery. We gave her a vision of medication-assisted recovery, then let her make her own choice. She realized on her own, ‘Well, now I really can be on medication and in recovery. However, I can’t be in recovery if I’m still doing other drugs on the side. Today, I like being in recovery and the future it promises, so I’m going to stop doing the coke. Indeed, I will embrace this path that is set before me.’” 

Given the promising picture that he painted, it makes perfect sense that Walter Ginter was honored with the Special Recognition Award at the 2018 SAMHSA Voice Awards. After all, how many people are dedicating themselves in such a precise fashion to saving lives by shifting perspectives and offering a viable alternative like Medication Assisted Recovery Support (MARS™)?

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.