For These Mothers Struggling With Opioid Use Disorder, One Residential Treatment Program Offers a Lifeline

Patients reflect on how North Carolina’s UNC Horizons program has helped support them and their families

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For These Mothers Struggling With Opioid Use Disorder, One Residential Treatment Program Offers a Lifeline
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Treating opioid use disorder (OUD) in pregnant people is critical for preventing health problems for both parent and child, including delivery complications and withdrawal symptoms in newborns. And for people struggling with OUD while raising children, concerns about custody while trying to manage their condition can be overwhelming. UNC Horizons—a substance use disorder treatment facility in North Carolina—exists specifically to help these parents access services with their children.

UNC Horizons offers a range of residential and outpatient services to parents and children, including prenatal, postpartum, and family planning care; psychiatric services; individual and group counseling; medication to treat OUD; child care with licensed psychologists; and parenting education. Pew spoke with current and former patients to learn more about their experiences and how the program helped them recover and care for their families. Read more about the program in our Q&A with the executive director of UNC Horizons.

“The services I received while living there with my 8-month-old child—medication, learning coping skills, therapy—helped me be a better parent. The program also provided services for my son to make sure he was reaching all of his milestones. One of the biggest things that kept me using opioids was not wanting to be sick: When you’re going through withdrawal as a parent, it’s daunting to have another person’s life in your hands. So having [buprenorphine] gave me a more stable foundation and has helped immensely. I think of it like any other medication I would take. I’d been to a different treatment program before but there was no structure; the medication and all the other services at UNC Horizons got me into long-term recovery. I still see my therapist and have strong bonds with the other moms, and now I’m in a women’s trades program to see what I really enjoy doing. I’m currently working on a construction project, and it’s really rewarding.”

—Katie

"I’d tried to stop using on my own before, but the withdrawal and sickness would last so long, and that really puts a strain on parenting. UNC Horizons sounded wonderful—and it didn’t cost anything. I was relieved to be able to have my son with me; he’s my biggest fan, so he’s a huge motivation. I learned how to be a better parent, and I learned about my disorder and the tools to treat it. I was hesitant to take [buprenorphine], because of stigma. But my recovery was more at risk by not taking it, so I started on a low dose, and it’s made a huge difference. I also felt safe there. Before, my living situation was chaos, but UNC Horizons lets you focus on being a mother and your recovery. Now I’m part of the program’s continuing care that offers medication and therapy, and there’s no cutoff point. I was never successful at quitting before, but now I have a year, five months, and two days in recovery.”

—Olivia

“I came to UNC Horizons when I was five months pregnant. I was using pain pills but had heard of [buprenorphine] and was willing to try treatment. Being pregnant, withdrawal felt even more terrible than usual, and the medication helped me stay in recovery. I was nervous that it would affect my pregnancy, but my son did great, and breastfeeding helped too. Being able to have my baby with me was my motivator. Addiction is in my family, and I wanted to break the cycle and not subject my kids to what I had seen. The staff checked on me often after my son was born to help me get used to being a new parent, and my mother was able to visit as well. Now I’m in continuing care with my therapist. I’m also pregnant with my second child, and they’re providing prenatal care and helped me find a prescriber so I wouldn’t lose my medication during the pandemic. My son is getting used to the idea of having a sibling, but I make sure to have one-on-one time with him. I read to him every night; the program taught me that.”

—Rachel

“It was difficult finding a treatment center that had everything I needed, and I had tried other detox and residential programs before. But UNC Horizons was different because I wasn’t locked in a building—I had freedom to make my own choices but still with the structure and routine I needed. I lived there while I was pregnant with my daughter and after she was born. Having a child therapist and other residents with experience as moms going through treatment was a big help for me. And I couldn’t have done it without [buprenorphine]. I still take my medication now. I’ve tried to come off opioids cold turkey before, but I never had the energy to do anything. With the medication, I can stay motivated and be an attentive parent; it’s like a mental safety net. Now I’m pregnant with my second child and have a year and a half in recovery.”

—Tiffany

As these mothers attest, the services provided at UNC Horizons, particularly access to medications for OUD, helped them work on their recovery while caring for their families. Since its inception, this residential treatment program has helped thousands of other families in North Carolina stay together. For states, UNC Horizons is a prime example of how treatment programs can better support parents and families dealing with OUD.

Mom and daughter with healthcare provider
Mom and daughter with healthcare provider
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UNC Horizons provides residential care for pregnant people and parents with substance use disorders and is one of the few residential facilities in the country that allow children to stay with a parent. About half of patients entering the program are pregnant, and many give birth while in the program, which is a division of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. (Read more about patient perspectives on the UNC Horizons program.)