John O’Neill is the Chief Clinical Officer here at Luna Recovery. He brings 30 years of clinical experience with him along with a deep commitment to helping people who struggle with addiction. Recently, we took some time to get to know John a little better, and we thought you might want to meet him too. Our conversation covered things like his education and work history, what he loves about his work and the principles that guide him, the words he would say to someone struggling with addiction, the guidance he would give a family member, and his thoughts about the impact of the pandemic on society.

Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way. John is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, and a Certified Addiction Specialist. He earned his Masters in Social Work from Arizona State University in 1994 and his Doctor of Education from Grand Canyon University in 2015. John has spent the last 30 years as a busy clinician, clinical director, and educator, and no matter what position he’s held, he’s put his energy into helping people who struggle with addiction. His recent positions include the Clinical Director of Outpatient Services at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, the Director of EAP Services for the National Association of Professional Baseball Umpires-Minor League Baseball, and the Vice President and Director of Clinical Services at Phoenix House in Austin, Texas. John sees a few clients privately and also serves as adjunct faculty at Purdue University. He has given numerous presentations on addiction and related issues.

John says that his interest in addictions and counseling was inspired by his youth, growing up in an Irish American family, where alcohol played a role, but he shared that the real calling happened while in college. Though he started studying law at university, a college presentation about alcohol use and boundaries, time spent as a residence hall director, and some insightful feedback from friends prompted a change of heart. He switched gears and went into social work instead. John told me that way back in his college residence hall, he would help his fellow students find their way through various college-life problems. He said, “I just talked to them; I tried to help encourage them to work through whatever was going on.” This simple approach has been refined by education and expertise over the past 30 years, but we think you’ll see that this basic, humble approach still sits at the heart of John’s work. 

Let’s take a closer look at:

His love for clinical work:

“I think helping someone work through whatever they’re struggling with – it’s like a very complicated puzzle… When you see peoples’ outcomes getting better when you see people getting sober, when you see people managing better and doing better in relationships – it’s so rewarding, and that’s what I’ve done for over 30 years…help people know that they can get better, help people have the hope that life can be better.  

I think that’s what I’m here for – to try to help people have hope.”

His guiding principles and the very best idea for how to really help people who slip or relapse:

“I actually care. I really do. I don’t want people to feel like they’re not important.” 

John’s guiding principles are:

John shared how strongly he believes that kicking someone out of therapy, treatment, or a program when they slip or relapse is actually counterproductive.  

  

“We shouldn’t be telling them that they’re not ready or that they’re not motivated. We should be holding them closer. We should be embracing them more. We should be asking, what’s going on, how do we help you, what can we do for you, how can we help you with this change? That’s how people get sober.” 

John went on to say,

“It’s easy to give people shameful statements. It’s easy to make people feel like crap. It’s not easy to say, I hear you, I understand. What do we need to do differently? 

How do we kick you into treatment, not out?

What he would say to someone struggling with their substance use:

In his 30 years of experience, John has witnessed the shame and sense of powerlessness that accompanies addiction.  

“I would say to them that what they are experiencing can change. You may not feel like it, but it’s possible to overcome feeling hopeless.

What he thinks a family member needs:

“It goes back to hope, right? They need hope that things can get better. It takes time. It requires patience, which I know they’ve run out of because they’re wiped out. They need to hear that we’re there for them, that we’ll be there to help them through this.

Reality testing for family members is also important.

“I think [it’s important to] help families understand that when people stop using they don’t feel better right away, they feel worse. They are angry and resentful…they act out. Helping family members be prepared for that. They need some reality testing, some expectation management, and some patience work along with the reassurance that we understand what’s happening and that we’re here to take this on with them.  Partner with them – because for so long they’ve felt overwhelmed and alone.”

His thoughts on the pandemic’s impact

John is realistic when it comes to talking about the impact of the pandemic. He acknowledges the collective trauma brought on by COVID-19 and also the political and social unrest that’s been going on, increased incidences of overdose and suicidality, relational problems and abuse, and the grief over those who have died or been disabled by severe illness.  He said, 

“This has been the most traumatic event that this society has experienced in modern times.” 

And his hope – 

“We need to embrace that this has been impactful. We need to be able to do that to move forward. I’d like us to get to the place we were after 9/11. People came together. There was more compassion. We need that right now.” 

We also wanted to know:

What excites John about working at Luna Recovery Services

After reading John’s guiding principles, it probably won’t surprise you that he’s excited to work at a place that emphasizes caring for clients, embracing them, and investing in them. Here’s what John said about Luna:

“What I love about Luna is that they truly are engaged with the clients. They care. They care about the clients. They are invested in the clients. They are invested in their welfare and in their interests, and they really care about their recovery. They care about doing what is best for the clients… That is the approach. We really are invested, we really do care, and we want to do everything we can to instill your recovery, to help you find a way to stay sober, and to not just stay sober but to address the issues and the problems that make it hard for you to stay sober. Because people can stay sober. People CAN just not use, but if you aren’t addressing all the things that lead you back to using, you’re gonna find yourself back using again. I think that the approach that Luna has is to make sure that we are taking a look at the mental health aspects, the relational aspects, eating problems, sleep problems…  It’s about truly being comprehensive, not just saying,  “stay sober.

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John O’Neill is a 30-year veteran in the field of mental health and addictions. He is the new Chief Clinical Officer at Luna Recovery Services. He has not just stayed in a career for 3 decades, he has clearly flourished. His passion for the work and his compassion for those he works with were evident from the first words he shared. Offering hope, fighting against shame, and ultimately helping people solve their own puzzles and save their own lives seem to enliven John O’Neill. We’re excited to witness his journey with Luna Recovery, and we are sure we’ll learn more from him going forward.

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