The “Wellbriety” program helps natives and other drug addicts


Staff members at Sanford Behavioral Health in Bemidji, Minnesota, are on the front lines dealing with some of the toughest issues in health care today, and one of those issues is substance abuse. The problem is compounded in Bemidji, where addiction recovery can be even more difficult for Native Americans who live just across the border in one of the surrounding reservations.

What is Wellbriety?

Mindie Bird is a licensed substance abuse counselor in Sanford, northern Minnesota, and works for the hospital’s Substance Abuse Disorders Treatment Services. She is also Native American, originally from the Black Feet Nation in northern Montana, but having spent most of her life in Bemidji. She leads Sanford Health’s efforts to become certified in a program called Wellbriety.

“Wellbriety is a program for aboriginal people in recovery, by aboriginal people in recovery. It’s a community approach to recovery, much like AA, but it’s specific to Native Americans. This is a big deal for Sanford because we are one of the very first organizations to seek certification from a non-Indigenous organization,” Bird said. “It creates a standard of care within behavioral health programs about what Native American recovery might look like.”

Alongside Bird is Joseph Beaudreau, a longtime Indian health advocate at Sanford Bemidji who recently transitioned into behavioral health. Beaudreau is part of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, and he too sees Sanford’s commitment to Wellbriety as a positive step for surrounding communities.

“It’s a little different from AA in that it’s more culturally specific in spirituality,” said Beaudreau, now a peer support specialist at Sanford. “The very term ‘Wellbriety’ speaks of holistic wellness: mind, body and soul. If you don’t take care of the spirit, then all the things that are going on deep within you are going to affect what is here, in our body, in our emotions and in our spirit.

Personal relationships with recovery

Both Bird and Beaudreau have personal relationships with drug addiction. Bird has lost family members to drugs and alcohol, while Beaudreau himself is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 25 years. These deeply personal experiences inform the way they treat their patients and help explain why the addition of Wellbriety to Sanford was so important.

“It’s a huge project that I’m excited about,” Bird said. “I have worked in the addiction and recovery field for 10 years now. I was originally going to be a nurse, when one of the elders came to pick me up and said, “You’re going to do this. You are going to be an adviser.

“I come from a family that had addictions. It was normal for me. I didn’t know there was anything different. And so when I started my own healing journey and realized what this might look like for me, I became really passionate about how I can create this for other people.

Sanford’s path to programming

So Bird contacted his supervisors to add Wellbriety.

“There was phenomenal support here at Sanford. They were ready when I approached them with this idea,” Bird said.

“We had to complete some training, and we also had to prove that we have an elder that we work with in the community. We have programs in place, and even though we are still waiting for a site visit, it took us about a year to get everything built and people coming to the groups.

The group itself begins in a circle and begins with what Bird describes as a kind of prayer, a smudging ceremony in which sage is burned. Then there are the teachings of the elders and a group meeting that can work like a traditional 12-step program.

The future of Wellbriety

For Bird, the work continues. She helped secure a state Opioid Response Grant, with the short-term goal of helping 100 people recover. In the long run, however, Bird and Beaudreau see this program as beneficial beyond Bemidji.

“That’s the cool thing about Wellbriety. It’s adaptable to communities. So it may look different in every Sanford program it becomes part of, but it will always have that standard of care to be Indigenous-led, with elders indigenous people who are part of what’s going on in the program,” Bird said.

“My hope is to build a very healthy and strong peer support community,” Beaudreau said. “To bring healing, to build those relationships, to build those bridges. We are on this big boat called earth together.

If you or someone you know would like to contact Wellbriety, you can email Mindie Bird or call the offices of Sanford Bemidji Behavioral Health at (218) 333-2006.

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Posted in Behavioral Health, Chemical Dependency, Inclusion at Sanford

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