S4 E15: Mark Baumgartner on Connecting with People

Released January 18, 2022

Eye contact can communicate a lot when trying to engage with someone. Honesty, interest, and respect come to mind. Mark Baumgartner says that this is one of the tools he and his team use when meeting with patients online. But what other tools can be of use when providing the best treatment possible remotely?

Podcast Transcript

Mark Baumgartner: It doesn’t have to be like war veteran or car accident or severe abuse kind of trauma. It can be very simple, subtle kinds of trauma that bring on shame that gets in the way of being one’s true self and connecting with others.

Dominic Lawson: Welcome to Beyond Theory, a podcast powered by Meadows Behavioral Healthcare. That brings you in-depth conversations with firsthand insights from the front lines of mental health and addiction recovery. I’m Dominic Lawson.

Eye contact can communicate a lot when trying to engage with someone. Honesty, interest, and respect come to mind. Mark Baumgartner, Executive Director of MBH Connect at Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, says that this is one of the tools he and his team use when meeting with patients online. But what other tools can be used when providing the best treatment possible remotely? Let’s get out of the abstract and see how this applies in the real world. It’s time to go Beyond Theory.

Mark Baumgartner: Well, hi there. My name is Mark Baumgartner, and I’m currently the Executive Director for Virtual Intensive Outpatient Services at The Meadows. I am just absolutely thrilled to be a part of the team in The Meadows mission. I’ve always admired The Meadows, the mission and work with patients, and the high standard of care. In March of this year, I joined. The Meadows already had virtual IOP services delivered since COVID started but has an intention to expand accessibility to the Meadows Model and care to folks who might not be able to travel to Arizona for it or who are the geographically distant, same thing, or prefer the privacy and convenience of doing it from home versus having to travel to an in-person location. Both approaches are effective.

My history as a person working in this field started as a kid. My second family growing up was going to camp in northern Minnesota, and it was a YMCA camp. I went there as a kid with my family, then as a camper, and then worked as staff. So, it wasn’t a surprise when I went to college and tried to figure out how I could graduate the soonest. I put together a psychology major with a minor in forest recreation, which is like being outside with people in the woods. Anyway, I got started working in mental health and treatment centers. Then 30 years ago, I finished graduate school in East Texas at Stephen F. Austin State University and had the great fortune to get on the staff at Sierra Tucson in Tucson, Arizona. That program attempted to mimic and did a pretty good job of the Meadows Model of Pia Melody, in terms of their approach to treatment and care. So, I learned a tremendous amount there. That was one of the richest times in my career.

I left after about five years and worked in Texas for the Department of Juvenile Justice, helping oversee mental health and substance use disorder treatment services to youth in the state’s custody in Texas and then longed to be back on campus in a treatment kind of environment, more like Sierra Tucson had. I had the opportunity to go to the Betty Ford Center for almost 19 years, starting as a counselor, lead counselor, clinical director on the main campus. We merged with the Hazelden Foundation to become Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. We opened a West Los Angeles outpatient program, did that for about a year, and then was executive director at Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage. Then, after the merger concluded after five or six years, it became apparent that I was ready for a change, so I went to work for Lakeview Health based in Jacksonville, Florida. They have an outpatient program in North West Houston, The Woodlands area. While we provided in-person outpatient, as the COVID pandemic hit we pivoted over to virtual. That organization chose to shut down that operation for various reasons in January. And so that opportunity concluded. But it was a gift for me because around that time in 2019 when I was looking at new opportunities, I had an opportunity to come to The Meadows. I didn’t do it because I had already committed to this other opportunity, and the scale and scope of the other opportunity was a change I wanted to do versus a big residential program, work in a small … with a smaller team doing outpatient.

So far, so good with The Meadows; I’ve had a nice landing in terms of getting some time to get to know folks in the programs. We’ve had a nice slow, sort of intentional build-up, going from three groups — one in California, Texas, and here in Arizona, that are virtual — to where, in the beginning of October [2021], we’ll have two groups in each of those places, one in the daytime and one in the evening. Then we’re looking to expand into Nevada and Colorado in September, October. So, the goal is we want to be in as many states as possible so that folks can access the Meadows Model.

Dominic Lawson: Of course. I want to ask you about that, the Meadows Model, because that’s been a recurring theme in a lot of our conversations this season, here on Beyond Theory. I want to go back to your time in the Texas juvenile system. Just walk me through that experience. What were some stories that you learned from that experience working there? 

Mark Baumgartner: That was an interesting experience because of all the facilities, so it’s based in Austin, like all state governments, and it is state government. All the facilities are in rural places. I think this is true of prisons as well, that they’re, you know, set up in places as a rule. So, what we would do is we would have local ranch people and small rural population people seeking to be employees at these facilities. So, it was folks that might, you might not normally expect, want to be in the counseling field or the education field. Still, that organization was responsible for the medical, which includes its participants’ mental health, education, and safety.

The goal wasn’t just to incarcerate and punish people; when kids, you know, became in the custody of the state, there was a commitment to re-socialize, which means have kids get the opportunity to look at what the circumstances were that got them where they were. Usually there’s a process of some probation failure, there’s a heinous enough crime that they have to be in that kind of custody, and learn, you know, what their offense cycle is, do victim empathy stuff, learn new skills, life skills for coping, to be functional in the outside world. So, it wasn’t your, you know, sort of assumed stereotypical prison kind of situation. There was education going on, and there was treatment going on. The largest provider of substance abuse treatment in Texas was that organization.

There is a lot of humility, learning, and appreciating working with folks different from my experience, both culturally and racially. And, you know that kids, no matter what their circumstances or what they did, are human with hearts and tend to grow in well-being just like everybody else. So, I was grateful that, for whatever reasons, the state of Texas made it a priority to provide treatment, not just education, to kids, to help them, you know, with the circumstances that led them into their situation. That was, you know, a good learning experience. 

Dominic Lawson: Of course, and I appreciate you sharing that and reflecting upon that as well. Now you’re here at The Meadows running the virtual IOP, talk about that. One of the things that I am always fascinated with is that, you know, that consistency of the Meadows Model, whether, you know, in person or now virtual IOP. Kind of talk about that a little bit because I think that’s important.

Mark Baumgartner: Yeah, so we recently, you know, came up with a name other than virtual IOP for the program, and we’re calling it MBH Connect, okay. We’re calling it “connect” because it kind of covers a lot of territory. One of the assumptions is that, I think it has been common, is in-person is always better. There’s no question that in-person is great because there’s a certain energy in the room, there’s nonverbal communication that occurs that, you know, folks may not even be conscious of that, you know, affects the therapy. But healing and recovery depend on connection and the quality of connection that occurs. So, what we have found is that even when folks are doing it online, you know, in a video conference-type setting, there’s enough going on that the connection is meaningful and relevant, and people heal.

So, I’ve spent a fair amount of time observing these groups that we do. Typically, IOP is three hours a day, four days a week, where the primary therapist, who’s Meadows-trained, trauma-trained, provides group process or group therapy and education. Then, in addition to that, we have trauma therapists, and that primary therapist provides additional individual sessions up to twice a week. So, I’ve been impressed with how vulnerable people have become and how meaningful the work has been. So, just as much as I’ve seen in person, it’s almost as if the fact that you’re looking into a screen and seeing a Brady Bunch kind of view of people, right, that you forget, especially if you’re the person doing the work. You can access your pain and your true, authentic self and bring that vulnerability up and forward. That is, sort of the connection starts to transcend the medium or the platform of it, of it being virtual.

Dominic Lawson: It’s interesting that it’s called “connect” because somebody was saying that the opposite of addiction is connection, and, you know, being amongst other people, so I appreciate you sharing that. Kind of walk us through that eight-week program, if you will, because I think people will be fascinated to know about that part.

Mark Baumgartner: Yeah. So, in our eight-week program, we’re trying to cover a variety of topics. Whether somebody is primarily in for anxiety, a substance use disorder, or a symptom, problem with gambling, our model fits all of that. We go through and look at boundaries, which are about, you know, knowing and appreciating limits, where I begin in other people, and then with that awareness, being able to have the uncomfortable communication as saying no, and having those limits, to preserve oneself and be true to one’s authentic self.

We cover trauma and the idea with traumas, you know, you have some degree of trauma if you’re alive. And so, getting to be aware of and having corrective experiences working through that enables more self-awareness and ability to be authentic. So, I’m going to go on a tangent now but isn’t it is an example of that. Last weekend, I had this wonderful opportunity to go to Indianapolis and meet up with many friends in recovery, who I’ve been doing, like video meetings with, you know, 12-Step meetings, with the pandemic for the last year. I have things  in common with this group of folks besides recovery, and these guys are from all over the country, because we’re fans of a particular band. The band supports us having a recovery table at the show, let’s the people who host that in for free. There’s a meeting in between sets into at that table. It’s called fellowship. The goal here is that it’s just for people who have a desire to stay sober and clean because there’s a lot of people at any concert that are using substances, but what I was going to get to in terms of connection in intimacy is this friend of mine that I was dancing with. He says, you know, we were dancing in this area we call “the moat,” where people are walking by because there’s a lot of good space. 

People are walking by and what I’ve noticed is, you know, if we were getting down and dancing and had good energy, as people would walk by, they’d kind of engage and dance with us. And my friend says, “Hey, I’m going to try and make eye contact with everybody who walks by.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s a cool exercise,” you know. So, I started doing that, and there would be even more engagement and smiles. So, you and I are making eye contact right now. But I just started thinking about eye contact in general. And you know, what, you know, that’s intimacy, when eye contact occurred. So, we can do that on the IOP. We do that in-group. When eye contact is going on, it’s different from when it’s not going on, right? And I thought, well, what gets in the way of people having eye contact? And it’s probably the feeling of shame. It could be other things, too, for sure, you know, anxiety or being preoccupied, but why am I looking down instead of up at people as I proceed?

What causes shame? Well, many times, you know, it’s ideas of I’m not worthy, it’s a feeling. And so, where does that come from? Well, it comes from experiences that I’ve internalized that are painful, can come from loss, trauma, right. And so it’s interesting in that, when we’re doing a sort of revisiting trauma, that that people have had in, you know, it doesn’t have to be like, you know, war veteran, or car accident or severe abuse kind of trauma, it can be very simple, subtle types of trauma that bring on shame that gets in the way of being one’s true self and connecting with others, when we provide those opportunities for people to go there and become self-aware about that and share that information. That’s a corrective experience, then, that shame is lifted, you know. My secrets have been shared, that I was holding in, and I even had secrets I wasn’t aware that I had that I was holding in that I’ve let out. Now I’m able to connect more. And again, that connection with others increases the quality of life. So, I engaged in that experiment with my friend, who was also dancing around there. I told him later on, you know, that was a cool thing to do. So now I’m walking around more conscious about how is my eye contact, going because if I’m not making eye contact with folks, that’s, might be a good indicator that, you know, something may be going on.

So anyway, we cover trauma in the curriculum, we cover boundaries, we cover, you know, addiction, and even people with, you know, primary anxiety or depression need to look at the substance use stuff to be educated about it. We asked folks who have a primary mental health situation other than the use of substances to abstain from using substances during our outpatient programs, so they can just examine their relationship with it, you know, temporarily to not drink or use, if that’s something they do. So, we cover that and provide education around that.

The eight weeks enable us to have enough time to dig in and have the opportunity for healing that we might not have if it were only three weeks or, you know, 12 sessions. So, and that’s an important thing because, while we want people to have individualized care, and length of stay in treatment can vary. And sometimes, that’s based solely on medical acuity. It’s not necessarily based on what somebody needs. So having the eight weeks enables us to get to a certain place to really examine things and heal versus just manage the symptom. So, we want to start a lifestyle of recovery and abstinence and, you know, connecting with other people in some new ways. But we also want to dig in and address the stuff that was sort of driving the symptoms of drinking or using or, you know, self-defeating relationships or whatever other behavior is troubling, that’s out of one’s values that’s been a repeated pattern and is out of control. So that’s why we go eight weeks.

On curriculum, too, here’s the thing: yes, it’s eight weeks long, and there’s a theme each week, and there’s education that happens with that theme. And then, there are assignments related to the theme that people do in any given week. And that’s how we can make the three hours four times a week meaningful because there’s a little bit of homework. Still, one can come in at any time in the eight-week cycle, and it’s appropriate, so I might be week seven, which is looking at Recovery Management, which is another.

The topic that we look at. And that’s the idea of me being responsible for my recovery and self-sufficient and working with others. In the sort of, the continuing care long term, I might be able to start there even my first week, and that’s no problem. It’s not contraindicated. So, you don’t have to come in at week one. It’s just organized in days, weeks where you can start anywhere.

Dominic Lawson: I wanted to ask you some about the success stories you’ve been experiencing with MBH Connect. Could you share a story or two? 

Mark Baumgartner: I see more emails and hear stories about patients completing the program successfully. We celebrate that as staff when that happens. So that happens pretty regularly versus some other unusual circumstances where somebody doesn’t finish. So, we do get folks who write back, you know, and express their gratitude, and we also are focused on serving and supporting the family, and we’re adding new elements into our program to do that. There are support groups available, virtually for family to join a couple of them a week, and people can join them from wherever they are. We’re even going to be doing more virtual family therapy. We’re looking at providing coaching, peer coaching, and our therapists for families and patients to help them attend to the gaps that may be occurring in their getting sober. 

Dominic Lawson: Of course. As we wrap up our session here on Beyond Theory, I just want to thank you so much, Mark, for coming on the show. And you mentioned that you like live music and stuff like that. You know, the band Phish, and things of that nature. I saw that in my prep as well. Also, I noticed you like to go mountain biking, as well. I imagine that’s something that you do for your mental health. What are some other things that you do?

Mark Baumgartner: Not a whole lot. I’m a dad, and so parenting takes some time. And it is full of challenges. And twins, right? Yep. Twins. 13-year-olds. Yeah, really. I recently moved here —so kind of getting the nest going and all the things that come with that. So yeah, I’ve been doing the biking and then the music thing with COVID. And then also just some of my life circumstances, that was something I hadn’t been doing in quite a while, like five years. So, it was really sweet to get to have that opportunity last weekend. And now everybody’s worried about, you know, the resurgence of COVID, potentially, you know, what’s going to happen? I think we all have some anxiety around that in terms of well, is that going to affect tour or our access to live music, as well as, you know, more important stuff, like, you know, how we work together and connect. But for me, it’s parenting, work, getting on the mountain bike, and music are some of my passions, whether at home or in person.

Dominic Lawson: Okay. Well, Mark, lastly, you know, we have a lot of inspiring clinicians and people who want to, who have gone through recovery and want to become therapists themselves, and things of that nature. If you could share with them a book or resource, that’d be greatly appreciated.

Mark Baumgartner: I, you know, I’d be remiss not to mention any of Pia Melody books because I think the models are unique, right. It’s been around 40 years. It’s informed, you know, our practice is informed by all our Senior Fellows. We have 13 Senior Fellows who are topic experts in the field of healing and mental health. So, any of her books. I would say, you know, follow your heart in terms of what you’re interested in and do your work in terms of becoming more in touch with your authentic self and, and your self-awareness, and then find a place to go and learn, you know, post-school, like one of the things Meadows does well in Arizona has had an internship program where you can get in there and experience everything personally as well as professionally in terms of the model, in the healing and care and delivery of service and treatment.

We’re working on sort of a Meadows training program that’s comprehensive, that would be long term that would incorporate all the knowledge of our Fellows in the model beyond our post-induction therapy training, which is a five-day training that people do to learn Pia Melody’s model. But just, you know, continue to follow your heart and what you’re interested in and those opportunities to grow and learn more are going to, you know, they’re going to come in front of you.

Dominic Lawson: Mark Baumgartner is the executive director of MBH Connect at Meadows Behavioral Healthcare. His clinical and leadership career spans more than three decades, and he has a broad range of experience on the substance use disorder and mental health continuum. Find out more about his work at themeadowsiop.com/locations/virtual-iop/.

Beyond Theory is produced and hosted by Dominic Lawson. You can discover more, including videos of some of our conversations at beyondtheory.com. Finally, thank you for listening. And I hope you join us next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.