UNC Health Talk

“We are not our disease”: UNC Horizons celebrates 23 years of healing women and children with new facility

UNC and surrounding communities gathered together to celebrate the grand opening of the new facility for UNC Horizons at Shelton Station in downtown Carrboro. UNC Horizons has been treating new and expecting mothers with substance use disorders, while keeping the mother-child dyad intact, since 1994.

Twenty-three years after its humble beginnings, UNC Horizons Program has a brand new, state-of-the-art facility in which to treat women and their children under one roof.

UNC Horizons is a world leader in research-based, holistic treatment of women with substance use disorder that also addresses and treats underlying trauma, all while keeping the mother-child dyad intact to heal the entire family.

UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health Care leadership gathered with UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr to celebrate the opening and dedication of the new UNC Horizons Program center in Shelton Station in downtown Carrboro.

The new facility features patient rooms for prenatal care, as well as substance use disorder treatment and psychiatric care. There is also a five-star child care center on site, and career counseling and housing assistance are also available at the new facility.

Wesley Burks, MD, executive dean of the UNC School of Medicine and Curnen Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, praised UNC Horizons founder John Thorp Jr, MD, and his team for more than two decades of success at UNC Horizons.

Opening ceremony for UNC Horizons, a prenatal substance abuse program that treats mothers & their children together with gender-specific, trauma-informed care. April 20, 2017. Carrboro, NC.
(Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“As physicians, we take care of our patients,” Burks said. “We promise to do the best of our abilities and our judgment. We try to remember that there’s an art to it as much as there is a science. For those who are ill, you do what’s required. I think what you can see here today is that Dr. John Thorp and his colleagues saw what was required, but they decided that something very much, much more needed to be done.

“UNC Horizons has brought together a family of people,” Burks continued. “They have substance use disorder counselors and therapists, child therapists, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, obstetricians—all of whom take care of a family, the mother and her child. For a mother going into labor and delivery, she has somebody here who’s been trained to take care of her and the issues that she’ll face. For the newborn, there’s a pediatrician there who’s been trained in neonatal abstinence syndrome. Post-delivery, there are people there for that mother and child longer-term that will help change the life of that child, as well as impact future generations to come.”

UNC Horizons was founded by Thorp, professor and division director of obstetrics and gynecology at the UNC School of Medicine, in 1994. At the time, UNC Horizons had two employees. Today, there are more than 80 employees, many of whom are graduates of the program.

Thorp wanted Horizons to address trauma in the lives of women suffering from substance use disorder, and to help women in an all-female environment. Unlike most treatment programs for women, UNC Horizons added a childcare and child therapy element. The new facility has a five-star Early Head Start child development center.

“If we had followed conventional paths, this program and this building would not exist,” Thorp said. “People who suffer from alcoholism and addiction and their families know all too well that treatment often occurs at the margins of society. We’re most familiar with church basements and double-wide trailers.

“Just like UNC Health Care’s beautiful cancer hospital, this beautiful space will say to women and children bravely embracing treatment that they merit the healing powers of an aesthetically lovely location. The co-location of behavioral health and physical health might even show the state and the nation the keys to reducing the cost of health care.”

Hendrée Jones, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UNC School of Medicine and the executive director of UNC Horizons.

“Just as UNC sets the bar for excellence in public education, UNC Horizons is setting the bar for shaping excellent clinical services, pushing innovation and access to affordable, comprehensive treatment for women and their children,” Jones said. “In fact, just this week, we published the very first comprehensive summary of all of the literature out there that helps support the national guidance document published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration to tell the world and the United States how to work with pregnant women who have opioid use disorders and how to care for their infants.”

Dr. John Thorpe speaks with Senator Richard Burr during the opening ceremony for UNC Horizons, a prenatal substance abuse program that treats mothers & their children together with gender-specific, trauma-informed care. April 19, 2017. Carrboro, NC. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

One of the many things that makes UNC Horizons unique is its commitment to treating the mother-child dyad, which Jones describes as “that special bond that women and children have.”

“Every day, we put in practice more than a dozen evidence-based models that are proven to help women gain recovery and maintain recovery,” Jones said. “One of those is opioid agonist medication, which is one part of treating opioid use disorder. And we were the ones that published that seminal, groundbreaking research to help move that field forward.

“Every day, we empower women to find their voice and use their voice. We give them the tools to be the parents they want to be and establish economic self-sufficiency. Most importantly, we help break the cycle of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that, for so many, can be a root cause of shame, and they use substances to numb emotional and physical pain.”

Governor Cooper praised the UNC Horizons Program and its staff for being leaders in the state, in the country and across the globe. Addressing the state’s current opioid crisis, Cooper called it a “state and federal issue” that needed a “bipartisan effort to fight the problem.”

“We know that substance abuse and addiction can do as much as anything to destroy people’s lives,” Cooper said. “Addiction causes domestic violence. It causes financial strife. It causes child neglect. UNC Horizons is a model for the rest of the world. The solution [to addiction] is a treatment approach. We can’t arrest our way out of this problem. We have to move from an enforcement model to a treatment model.

“We have to make sure that we get rid of the addiction. And what’s happening here is getting us there.”

“We have to make sure that we get rid of the addiction. And what’s happening here is getting us there.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said UNC Horizons staff and doctors at UNC Health Care are on the front lines of the battle against the current opioid epidemic. Opioid overdoses claim the lives of 91 Americans each day, and North Carolina has one of the highest rates of opioid addiction in the country, Burr said.

“This is a model program that other states will replicate,” Burr said. “It is a tremendously holistic approach. It is clearly one of the most innovative design models for to care for and treat the devastating effects of substance abuse while keeping families together.”

The program closed with Lucy Brown, a graduate of UNC Horizons, who now works for Horizons as a lead residential advisor and N.C. Certified Peer Support Specialist.

“A horizon is defined as a limit of a person’s mental perception, experience and interests,” Brown said. “For more than 20 years, Horizons has worked tirelessly to challenge the outlooks and broaden the outlooks of the thousands of women that they have served,” Brown said. “My biggest fears coming into treatment were that I might be separated from my child or that I’d be a terrible mother. Twenty-seven days into treatment, I was already equipped with more skills and more tools than women having their first child.

“Twenty-seven days into recovery I was given three things: Compassion, hope and a beautiful baby girl to raise. The staff at Horizons knew what I was capable of before I could even imagine it. UNC Horizons places such a huge emphasis on healing the mother-child dyad and rightfully so. In treatment, I was able to dive into the difficult paths of overcoming my substance use disorder while experiencing the joys of parenting. By taking care of myself, I was taking care of my child. Recovery is a triumph over a powerful enemy.

“People who live with substance use disorders—especially women and mothers—live with a terrible stigma,” Brown said. “But we are not our disease. I am not my mugshot. But, rather, I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a mother. I am a friend. I needed to be shown that there was hope for a new beginning. UNC Horizons and our allies in the community have helped pave the way for our transformative journeys.”