Part 2: What, exactly, is a Healing Forest?

It’s more than an abstract concept. Ann Arbor, Michigan, is one.

Derek Wolfe
The Healing Forest Project
5 min readAug 11, 2016


The Healing Forest is a model for community-based recovery, meaning everybody — not just people directed affected by addiction — have a role in getting addicts back on their feet. Its history is rooted in the Native American Wellbriety movement, a combination of being sober and well.

Don Coyhis has been sober for nearly three decades and is the founder of White Bison, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing alcoholism in Native American communities. He has been at the forefront of promoting the Healing Forest Model.

The model approaches addiction treatment by seeing the community as the patient, and the addict as the byproduct of community values. “Alcohol is not the cause of something, it’s the symptom of something,” Coyhis said.

The Healing Forest Model says the life force of the soil — the values that make a community what it is — must change. In the Native American context, anger, guilt, shame, and fear must be replaced by more positive values and traditions such as healing, spirituality, ceremonies, language, and interconnectedness. Doing so will lead to a healthier community.

Within that same vein comes the understanding of how those with substance abuse disorders can become sober temporarily, but ultimately fall back into the same habits of addiction.

A 2013 research paper written by Arthur Evans, Roland Lamb, and William White frames it this way: “The clinical treatment of addiction is seen as analogous to digging up a sick and dying tree, transplanting it into an environment of rich soil, sunshine, water, and fertilizer only to return it to its original deprived location once its health has been restored and subsequently lost again.

“What’s called for in this metaphor is treating the soil — creating a Healing Forest within which the health of the individual, family, neighborhood, community, and beyond are simultaneously elevated. The Healing Forest is a community in recovery.”

But what does a “community in recovery” look like in practice?

Evans, Lamb, and White say creating a community in recovery requires “strategies of outreach (extending the reach of treatment organizations into the community), inreach (involving indigenous community recovery support resources within the treatment environment), and community-based resource development (facilitating broader processes of community healing).”

In layman’s terms, the tangible aspects of what Evans, Lamb, and White present can perhaps best be encapsulated by access: access to treatment, support groups, housing, jobs, and education.

The intangible aspects could be defined as a community practicing and valuing equality and inclusivity, where individuals are given second, third, even fourth chances, and there is value seen in someone working to overcome tremendous adversity to get healthy and into recovery.

Today, it may be impossible to find full-fledged Healing Forests in the United States. Laws and lack of resources stained by stigma have made it challenging for them to fully take root.

That said, some communities have moved toward growing a Healing Forest.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, a city with nearly 114,000 residents and home to the renowned University of Michigan, is one of those communities. Though it might not seem like it at first glance.

Like many sports-obsessed college towns, when the football team is playing on a Saturday afternoon, the smell of alcohol permeates the air. With the loud music blasting, thousands of college students sip on red cups filled with vodka or beer cans. And when it’s all over, those containers make their way onto the ground.

On any given weekend night, lines slither outside the doorways into the many bars and clubs. There are liquor stores on nearly every corner close to campus. It’s not hard to find someone stumbling home from a night out.

It would be disingenuous to suggest there aren’t ways to escape drinking for students who choose not to imbibe. Nearly every night, there are concerts and other events near campus. The University of Michigan hosts UMix, an event that provides students with an alternative night of drug-free fun.

But the results of a National College Health Assessment in February 2014 suggest the extent of drinking on campus. Forty-one percent of undergraduates reported at least one occasion of consuming five or more alcoholics in the two weeks prior to taking the survey. Forty-three percent of undergraduates said they did something because of their drinking they later regretted.

Matt Statman is the program director for the Collegiate Recovery Program at the University of Michigan, the hub of recovery life for students. According to him, the drinking culture of Ann Arbor makes it way into nearly every aspect of college living, going beyond students and Ann Arborites drinking heavily in the evening.

“Pretty much any Friday Night when it’s above 32 degrees, if you’re downtown at night, it looks crazy,“ Statman said. “But it’s also just, what are people talking about in the classroom? Where are the networking opportunities? Students all the time say you gotta go to the bar if you want to make connections.”

“What are people talking about in the classroom? Where are the networking opportunities? Students all the time say you gotta go to the bar if you want to make connections.”

And yet, the drinking culture isn’t the only story. Ann Arbor, for the most part, is a community supportive of recovery — a Healing Forest.

“I live in Ann Arbor. I walk down Main St. I can’t ever go downtown and not run into people in recovery,” Anna Byberg, program coordinator of Spera Recovery Center, a detox facility in Ann Arbor, said. “And it’s kind of amazing, but there’s no sign on your forehead that says, ‘I’m a person in recovery.’ You just know because you’ve seen people at meetings or see people around.”

“I really consider Ann Arbor very healthy soil for people,” she continued. “And that isn’t to say that everyone needs to move to Ann Arbor and live here forever. But part of it is how can we replicate what we have in Ann Arbor that is healing soil? What are the components of that?”

To read Part 3 on treatment centers, click here.