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Blog post by Danny W. Pettry II, M.Ed., M.S., LPC, NCC, CTRS-BHS, Certified Success Principles Trainer


Those of us practicing recreation therapy aim to help people save their lives (protecting from illness) and at the same time reaching their fullest potential (promoting health and wellness) using Dr. David Austin’s Heath Protection/ Health Promotion Model.


Cliché – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.


What can you do to help those patients/ clients who are resistant to making changes?


An example of a person who needs help:

A person with mental health diagnosis and addictions, but doesn’t want to give up substances.

The path is fatal. Narcotics Anonymous(NA)  teaches that using results in three things: institutions, jail and death.

Many have been in detention prior to being admitted to the treatment facility (institution). Some have overdosed (nearly died) and luckily survived. The outlook isn’t bright.

We as practitioners want to help these people to have a healthier, functioning life. It’s why we do the work we do.

We want them to create a life worth living.

But how?

Here are some tips:


1.) Stop Chasing the Dog

What happens when you chase a dog? The dog runs in the opposite direction.

I chased a pet Italian Greyhound for a long time (as a young kid in the 80s) after dropping the leash.

I was scared that I’d never get my dog back.

Finally, an elderly couple sitting on a porch gave me advice.

They said that the dog will keep running if you’re chasing it.

They suggested for me  whistle and run the opposite direction. Guess what happened? That dog started chasing me. I ran all the way home (a full block) with so the dog would keep chasing me.


Forcing a person to make changes is a lot like chasing a dog. They go in the opposite direction.

We as practitioners (and role models) must live our lives authentically in a way that is attractive to people with problems.

We must live as a bright light in a dark world that gives people hope. The still sick and suffering person looks to us and perhaps decides, I’d like to have that too. I’d like to learn to be healthy functioning, emotionally well-balance, able to get along with others, and make effective choices.


2.) Take Two Steps Forward and One Step Backward

  • Step # 1 : “Hi, my name is Wayne. I’m the Rec Therapist here. I care about you and I want to help.”
  • Step # 2: “Here are some healthy coping skills and activities that you can do to cope. Consider trying these.”
  • Step # 3: the ineffective forceful approach consists of defensive questions that often start with why. Why didn’t you do this? why?  Criticize, condemn, or complain about their lack of progress. Continuing to push results in the person being pushed away, which we don’t want. We want them to step into recovery and  start making healthier choices in the way they think, feel, and behavior.
  • Step # 3: stepping back a step: leave the skills and opportunities  there for them to think about, ponder about, look over, and consider.  Praise the smallest bit of using healthy skills for living. Be available to help (within reason)



3.) Don’t jump in the swimming pool:

How do you save a drowning person?

One suggestion is to avoid jumping in the water to save them.

The drowning person is out of control. They might grab onto you and pull you down with them.

A highly trained lifeguard may be able to jump and swim to save a person, but there is the risk the lifeguard could drown attempting to save them. Lifeguards are trained in saving techniques.

Getting too involved/ breaking boundaries is an example of jumping in the pool to save someone. It’s a dangerous situation for the practitioner.

The healthy way is to throw out a lifesaver on a rope. Grab a pool noodle and stick it out to them. Take off a shirt and use it as a rope. Throw an end of the shirt out and attempt to pull them out of the water.

This healthy way is a metaphor for teaching, showing, role-modeling, and coaching healthier life skills.

Perhaps we’ll live our life in such an attractive way that we’ll be a light in a dark world. A light that encourages a person who is sick and suffering to reach out to one of the lifesavers we’re throwing out to them.



4.) Plant seeds of change and hope:

Small acorns can grow into giant oak trees.

The tree doesn’t grow in one single day. Rome wasn’t built in a day either.

It takes time. Those who are resistant to change today may be receive the (sun, water, and environment) that can help produce change in the long run. Perhaps the seeds of knowledge that we plant will sprout one day, even years after our patients have left our direct care. We can hope planted the seeds of potential change.


5.) The starfish story:

A girl throws a starfish in the sea. Old man laughs. He tells the girl that there are too many starfish washed upon the sand. He said you can’t save them all. It won’t make a difference. She picks up another starfish, throws it in the ocean and said, it made a difference to that one.

We may have people who are resistant to making changes. It can feel distressing to have several patients sliding (downward spiral) at a time.

Take great pride if you have one patient/ client/ person who makes positive changes. That’s what makes it worthwhile.


6.) Put Your Own Mask on First. 

Flight attendants are trained to put on their own oxygen mask first so they can help others.

Imagine if they put it an oxygen mask on a five-year-old boy first to save his life first. The attendant passes out from lack of oxygen. The 5-year-old boy isn’t trained and doesn’t know what action to take and as a result more people pass out from lack of oxygen.


The professional (Rec Therapist) must be stable. They must save themselves first. We, in the human services field need self-care and to be intelligent about our emotions and how to cope with them. Becoming off balance from life stress, burnout, frustration is similar to becoming a drowning person.  A drowning person isn’t able to save anyone else.



Today’s Messages for Rec Therapist who needs to hear it:

1.) Do the best you can for patients/ clients/ people who you provide services for. You’re only responsible for your own actions. Be ethical. Do the right thing. go the extra mile (aspirational ethics).

2.) Throw out the lifesavers, pool noodles. This metaphor is about giving it your best. Teach what you know. Show how to do it. Model the skills. This could be teaching emotion regulation skills, interpersonal skills, and healthy leisure skills as an alternative to self-destructive behavior.

3.) Remember you have support. You can call the lifeguard (in the pool metaphor). In real life, the lifeguard are our wonderful co-workers: physicians, psychiatrist, nurses, case managers, teachers, chaplain, direct care staff and others, housekeepers, and anyone else.

4.) Reach out to your own social support system. Talk to your friends for support (just don’t reveal confidential information about patients)

5.) Practice what we preach. Do self-care. Take some time to recharge the batteries.