Fr. Jim Swarthout: On a Mission to Heal Others

The addiction and behavioral health professional brings a unique background—and a big dose of compassion—to his work with Amita Health

By Jenny Diedrich

Fr. Jim Swarthout ends each of his phone conversations with a simple wish: “Be happy.” It’s a philosophy he embraces every day as he works to help those in recovery live joyfully.

“Addiction and behavioral health issues hold us hostage, but everyone has a right to have joy,” says Swarthout, 67.

As director of addiction and behavioral health medicine at Arlington Heights, Ill.-based Amita Health since 2020, Swarthout describes his role as helping to connect healing of the heart and mind with medical resources. And he certainly has a lot of opportunities to play out that role. Amita Health is one of the largest hospital systems in Illinois and the seventh-biggest behavioral health hospital in the country.

We need to be more aware that addiction and mental health issues are chronic diseases. They don’t go away. I will always struggle day by day.”

—Fr. Jim Swarthout, Amita Health

Swarthout’s professional experience includes being the only clergy member in the U.S. certified as an intervention specialist. He holds a master’s degree in social work and a doctorate in theology. Swarthout began his career as a Catholic priest, serving for 14 years. In 1998, he married wife Claudia, who had been a nun for 21 years. He’s now an Episcopal priest.

The Mission Is Personal for Jim Swarthout

Swarthout believes fellowship is key to recovery. It’s a mission with a personal bent: He himself has lived the 12-step program during more than 23 years in recovery. “We in recovery isolate and hide ourselves because we have such a deep sense of shame and hurt. We become the greatest healers of each other because we walk with each other, and we feel no judgment among those who walk with us,” Swarthout says.

Swarthout still has passion for his work.

At Amita, he serves as an expert in invitational intervention, an approach that strives to treat addiction and mental health issues with compassion and understanding, encouraging resilience instead of guilt. Traditional intervention methods can be confrontational, putting the person in the hot seat and on the defensive, Swarthout says. “We got them into treatment, but mostly we ended up sabotaging the person [with traditional methods].”

In invitational intervention, the term “person of concern” is used, rather than “addict” or ”alcoholic.” The person of concern is invited to a meeting where they are asked to seek treatment. The process, which focuses on both individual and family healing, has a success rate of about 85%, according to Swarthout.

“Right from the get-go, there’s honesty and transparency,” he says. “We start with, ‘We love you. We care for you.’ We ask if there has been any addiction in past generations. If yes, we say that your [family member] just has the family cold. It takes away the blame and the shame. We tell them that they have an exquisite, fragile heart and a diseased brain. And they have a right to have joy.”

Eradicating Stigma, Day by Day

As with just about all professionals in the recovery field, Swarthout works to fight the stigma of addiction and believes small changes can make a difference. Using the word “recurrence” in place of “relapse” helps redirect the conversation, he says.

“Many years ago, a member of my family had cancer,” he says. “She got better, and we had a party. The cancer came back, and she died. Did we say that she relapsed or that she had a recurrence of her disease?

“The word ‘relapse’ means you can’t handle it. We need to be more aware that addiction and mental health issues are chronic diseases. They don’t go away. I will always struggle day by day. My addiction wakes up 10 minutes before I get up in the morning and goes to bed 10 minutes after I fall asleep.”

I’m still getting fed by working in this field. My body is wearing out a bit, but my heart continues to grow. It’s a ministry for me.”

—Fr. Jim Swarthout

After decades of serving those in recovery, ageless Jim Swarthout continues to be propelled by those he calls “kids.” At a recent 12-step meeting, he was amazed by the wisdom of the attendees who were newly in recovery.

“They were so curious and creative in trying to find new joy,” he says. “I’m still sort of tingling over it. We old-timers learn from the young. Working with the young continues to drive me. The meeting was so full of spirituality and looking for joyful living again. It was wonderful.”

Swarthout is frequently asked when he’ll retire, but he doesn’t have an answer. And why should he?

“I’m still getting fed by working in this field,” he says. “My body is wearing out a bit, but my heart continues to grow. It’s a ministry for me.”