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Santa Fe Program Pairs Art With Opioid Addiction Treatment

May Ortega | KUNM
Nikki Romero puts a puzzle together at home.


Opioid addiction comes with more than just physical symptoms. A big part of fighting for sobriety is recovering emotionally, and for different people, that part needs a different approach.

La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe is pairing opioid addiction treatment with photo-based storytelling through a program exclusively for mothers in recovery.

Nikki Romero has liked photography her whole life. Her favorite subjects to shoot are her three daughters.

“I’ve always loved art and I’ve always been creative, so this was definitely a big boost for me and a hobby I that could stick with,” Romero said.


She had been off opioids for a few years and was one of the first women to join the storytelling program – From Numbness to Awakening – when it started two years ago. In that time, she’s presented her photos to hundreds of people in New Mexico.


“It’s a lot of art therapy, get my story out there, reclaim myself,” she said. “In my narrative, I don’t have to say anything that – that isn’t me. I get to be myself.”

Credit Courtesy Nikki Romero
Nikki Romero took this photo of her daughter for the project.

Art-based treatments like this fall into a wider category called expressive therapy. It helps patients share their feelings and experiences in a way they can’t with words alone. Research has found that addiction treatment and art therapy pair well together.

New Mexico isn’t the only state that’s trying out this method.


Sarah Shotland runs a writing-based therapy program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, called Words Without Walls. It uses creative writing to help people in rehab or prison with their emotional recovery.


“Long-term recovery is a process of addition, not a process of subtraction,” Shotland said. “We’re trying to add value to their lives.”

Since that program was started 10 years ago, 300 people have enrolled. Shotland said several participants have gone on to win awards, get writing degrees and follow personal goals they set during their therapy.

“The ability to reflect on what’s happened to you and the ability to imagine a life where the future looks better than the past, those are two things that are critical for long-term success,” she said.

A big part of the photography project in Santa Fe is having community events where the women show their photos and tell their stories. Their most recent one was at the Santa Fe Art Institute.


Jackie Munro, the program’s director, led a debrief later on how it went. Romero said her presentation went well.


“Everybody was cool and nice, huh? Everybody was cool and supportive,” she said.

Romero said she was nervous at first. And that used to be a bigger problem for the women, Munro said, but not so much anymore.

“To see them gain skills in public speaking and advocating for themselves, so using their story to connect with others who might not have these experiences, that’s been really lovely to see,” Munro said.

This project can be a good thing for patients and the public, Munro said, even if it’s not a solution to every aspect of opioid addiction.

“The individuals that we’ve had the opportunity to share the work with have really responded well to it and we’ve seen that there’s a demand for the voices of these people to be heard,” she said.


Credit Courtesy Nikki Romero
Nikki also took photos of her two oldest daughters together.

Romero said she’s come a long way in the last couple of years because she’s stuck with her suboxone treatment and the storytelling program.

“I’m really proud of myself right now that I’m able to do all this and take the time to do it with my kids and being single,” she said. “I’ll definitely be able to look back and be happy about it.”

Right now, there are only three women in the photography program, but Munro said there are plans to expand it and turn it into an optional nine-month course for all of the 250 people getting addiction treatment at La Familia.



Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.


May joined KUNM's Public Health New Mexico team in early 2018. That same year, she established the New Mexico chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and received a fellowship from the Association of Health Care Journalists. She join Colorado Public Radio in late 2019.
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