ABHS Treatment Center in Chehalis Teaches Offenders to Change Behavior Surrounding Drug Use


Among countless examples of San Francisco 49ers memorabilia lining the walls of his office, Martin Montague, lead counselor at American Behavioral Health Systems in Chehalis, also has photos of himself playing football — in the muddy yard of a Mexican prison.

He says these photos, and his willingness to admit his own past drug use, show clients how far they can come when they break free of their addiction.

“Helping these gentlemen keep their demons in check helps me keep my demons in check,” Montague said. “I spent many years in active addiction … I’m in recovery myself. If I can do it, anybody can.”

ABHS Administrator Tony Prentice said almost all of the counselors at ABHS in Chehalis are also in recovery.

“They’re giving back, and that’s part of the recovery process,” he said. “A lot of our counselors have a deep passion for what they’re doing.”

ABHS’ corporate headquarters is in Spokane. Prentice said the organization is one of the largest private addiction rehabilitation programs in the state.

Its Chehalis facility, on Washington Avenue, can hold up to 210 clients, all men, who ABHS treats on a contract basis with the state Department of Corrections. Some stay at the inpatient facility for 90 to 180 days as part of the Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative, better known as DOSA, while others stay for indeterminate time frames, Prentice said.

“There’s a client here and there you can tell isn’t ready to change,” Prentice said.

However, he said, counselors often see a change in a client’s outlook in a week or two.

“These aren’t inmates, these are clients. We’re really looking at addressing behaviors and developing pro-social life skills,” Prentice said.

Prentice said drug trends haven’t really changed in the past few years.

“Meth and heroin are everywhere,” he said.

Clients with a history of heroin abuse typically become addicted to opiate-based pain pills first, especially if they’re young, he said.

“It’s the same high, they’re opiates,” he said.

Montague said the majority of the clients he works with have been addicted to methamphetamine. Some are addicted to both meth and heroin.

“I like to say they can never go back to using and have it be fun anymore,” he said. “If you go back to using it’s death (or) prison. We put the seed and it’s planted.”

About 85 percent of people who start treatment at ABHS finish it, he said. While counselors help clients get involved with 12-step programs, ABHS focuses primarily on working to identify emotions and behaviors associated with addiction, so addicts can recognize situations and triggers that could lead them to relapse.

“There’s a lot of stuff we give them, there’s a lot of structure we give them,” Montague said. “These guys are coming from characteristically disordered lives. It’s hard to get them up to speed … This isn’t easy.”

Clinical Supervisor Craig Zahn said the counseling at ABHS is designed to help clients transition from the drug-using subculture they were living in to a more conventional life.

“There’s a lot of retraining, reprogramming,” he said. “Inpatient is an opportunity to put life on pause and you’re solely worrying about what issues are on your plate. It helps them to really be able to focus on what they need to change.”

ABHS teaches clients to recognize when they have relapsed mentally, even if they haven’t started using drugs again. Part of that is learning to manage stress without substances.

“The real work begins when they leave,” Prentice said.

Some of ABHS’ facilities are starting to treat both mental health and chemical dependency issues at the same location. Prentice said the Chehalis facility will likely continue to treat only chemical dependency for the time being.

“Which comes first, (mental health or chemical dependency) is really the crux of the situation,” he said.

When ABHS first came to the old St. Helens Hospital building in 2009, some members of the community were concerned ABHS would not make a good neighbor. Prentice said that hasn’t been the case.

“You probably know more about ABHS than your own neighbor,” he said. “I think we bring a valuable service to this community and our state.”