From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Vernon Johnson: a pioneer

From Daphne Mack <>
Date 07 Jul 1999 09:55:34

For more information contact:
Episcopal News Service
Kathryn McCormick


Vernon Johnson was pioneer in compassionate
chemical dependency treatment

by Willmar Thorkelson

(ENS) Early in his fight against chemical dependency,
the Rev. Vernon Johnson began to question the then-
popular conviction that alcoholics had to hit bottom
before they could begin to recover.

"Why do the people who have the disease wait so long
to get treatment?" he would ask. "Why do they suffer
so long? Since alcoholism is progressive and fatal,
we see an urgent need to stop the progress of the
disease as early as possible."

Johnson, a Minnesota Episcopal priest who died of cancer
last spring, and his colleagues in the Johnson Institute
subsequently became advocates of early intervention-a
position that may be one of the priest's most valued

Because of early intervention, the jobs of thousands
were saved as they were confronted by co-workers and
professionals about their drinking. Many were sent to
treatment centers and others treated in local outpatient
facilities. Programs of intervention and employee
assistance became common in the corporate world.

The effect of the illness on entire families was
another Johnson emphasis. "He was convinced of the
need to involve the family of the dependent in the
recovery process," said an associate. 

Johnson also addressed the need he saw for a program
on awareness and prevention in the schools.

As a clergyman, Johnson was able to reach out to faith
communities and to get them involved. Churches routinely
made their facilities available for meeting of Alcoholics
Anonymous, Al-Anon and other groups.

"The church in the basement" is the way some would
refer to meetings of these groups," Johnson would

Despite some progress, he was not satisfied with the
way either seminaries or medical schools prepared their
students to deal with the problem of chemical dependency.

Johnson himself had a drinking problem and in 1962
entered the Hazelden Foundation, the nation's pioneer
in 12-step-based treatment for alcoholism in Center City,

That treatment prompted Johnson to begin meeting with
a parish action group at St. Martin's-by-the-Lake Episcopal
Church in Minnetonka Beach, Minnesota. The group included
families in recovery from alcoholism.

In 1966, Johnson co-founded Johnson Institute to help
employers assist employees who suffered from chemical
dependency. In 1968, the institute developed and
implemented the first chemical dependency program at St.
Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis, now Fairview-University
Medical Center. This was the first of some three dozen such
treatment programs in hospitals.

Johnson became nationally known with lectures and with
his three books including I'll Quit Tomorrow, which has
been revised since first published in 1973. More than
350,000 copies have been sold. In the book, Johnson
estimated that 10 percent of the drinkers in America will
become alcoholic and that these people will not be able
to stop drinking by themselves.

Relatives, employers and others can help awaken an alcoholic
to his/her condition and its consequences by confronting that
person with the facts of what he or she has done during the
times they were drinking.

At the time the book was published, the Johnson Institute
advocated therapy that consisted of four weeks of intensive
inpatient care and two weeks of aftercare. But with managed
care tightening funding, the number of alcoholics who get
insured inpatient treatment has been sharply reduced,
according to George Bloom, Johnson's successor as institute
president. Instead of the 21 or 22 days found to be a
significant breakpoint for effective treatment, the average
time a patient now stays in a treatment center is four days.

Johnson served for 25 years at the annual summer school on
alcohol studies at Rutgers University and was on the summer
school faculty at the University of North Dakota and the
University of Georgia.

--Willmar Thorkelson is a religion news writer in Minneapolis.

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