A moment to reflect

Addaction started 50 years ago with a desperate mother writing to the paper about her son’s addiction. Much has changed but the charity’s purpose grows ever stronger, says Alistair Bohm.

Fifty years ago, the Guardian newspaper published a letter from Mollie Craven (above). Mollie’s son had been a registered heroin addict since the age of 18 and, feeling powerless to help, she wrote: ‘we parents of addicts are a neglected and ignored group.’ Her vision was for a parental support group that could research the little understood issue and support each other to find effective ways of helping children with drug problems.

Addaction’s Alistair Bohm

That organisation was founded in 1967 as APA, standing both for the Association of Parents of Addicts, and the Association for Prevention of Addiction. Sadly, Mollie’s son died at the age of 21, but she continued her pioneering work into the 1990s, helping to influence policy in the UK. APA also continued, moving increasingly into harm reduction and treatment services throughout the heroin epidemics of the 1980s and 90s, and rebranding as Addaction in 1998.

Addaction has grown significantly since then, from 19 services in 1998 to 120 today. Staff numbers have increased ten-fold in that time, taking in nurses, doctors and pharmacists as the charity expanded its remit into more clinical work. The staff profile has also changed. The number of former service users volunteering as recovery champions has grown and the people who use Addaction services now have influence across the entire organisation, including in senior leadership settings.

Mollie Craven wrote to the newspaper about her son’s addiction. Her vision for a support group planted the roots for Addaction.

In recent years, there’s been an increasing appreciation of complex needs, expressed through mental health issues, wider physical health concerns, and higher levels of medication. We’ve also seen the emergence of new psychoactive substances, an explosion in alcohol problems, and rising mortality associated with an ageing heroin-using population. Throughout, Addaction has adapted to the environment while lobbying for a system that works more effectively, and for more people.

‘Our work is sadly more necessary than ever’: The charity’s chair, Lord Alex Carlile, looks to the challenges ahead

Addaction’s 50th anniversary is both a cause for celebration and an opportunity for reflection. Every charity should aspire to build a world in which it is no longer needed, but for Addaction that remains a distant ambition. Much has changed in 50 years, but our work is sadly more necessary than ever.

Lord Alex Carlile: Addaction’s challenges are greater than ever.

We can be proud of our successes in the UK treatment system, boasting comprehensive coverage, adherence to the evidence base, basic humanity and pragmatism. We can also take heart from the ever lower rates of heroin use over the past decade. However, in the record numbers of drug-related deaths, the estimated 1.6 million dependent drinkers and the emerging issues in young people’s mental health needs there lies a warning: the system doesn’t work for everyone, and our most vulnerable citizens deserve better.

In that sense, it was heartening to hear the prime minister’s plans to transform mental health support at the annual Charity Commission lecture. This is an issue that unites us across the political spectrum, indicating the widespread recognition that the status quo is no longer acceptable. However, rhetoric is one thing and resources quite another. Following years of underfunding and neglect, it’s essential that any plans to transform mental health provision are backed up by concrete commitment of resources. Without that, comprehensive change will be a very tall order indeed.

For Addaction’s part, we’re looking to the future with a broader offer, supporting people in all of their complexity, and taking action early to tackle harmful behaviours. We believe that our role as a charity can’t be limited to service delivery but requires us to influence policy to provide easier and more equitable access for all. Were Mollie Craven still with us today, I believe she would be immensely proud of where her letter has taken us. I believe too that she would recognise how much remains to be done.

Doe’s story

Doe’s life changed at 15 years old when she discovered her dad wasn’t her real father. ‘My mum told me I was actually the product of a rape. I’d never felt so alone and I started hating myself. If I’d had someone to talk to back then, I don’t think my life would have spiralled quite so far out of my control.’

Leaving school with few qualifications, Doe met her partner through drug taking and they got married. ‘We thought babies might make everything better. I did stop using when I was pregnant, but as soon as breast­feeding ended, it all began again. My kids didn’t have a good start. The house was disgusting, with no lightbulbs and no carpets. We would inject in front of them.’

Doe’s husband died suddenly at the age of 37. ‘I hated him for dying. I wanted that to happen to me. I was aware how awful life was, but didn’t know what to do about it.’

One morning, Doe woke at 4am with the shakes. ‘Every little bit of alcohol came back up. My body was rejecting it. I crawled downstairs to get help. I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face as she watched me being taken to hospital.’

Doe spent six months in rehab before attending Addaction. ‘I was terrified of the world outside. I ran the whole way from the front door of the rehab to the reception at Addaction. I’m now volunteering five days a week. Just being here for people to talk to, and inspiring them with how things can change. It’s like I’ve found my life again.

‘I’m so grateful to everyone who has supported me. I didn’t have the strength to do it for myself, because I didn’t think I was worth doing it for. I now know I am.’

Clare’s story*

‘Before it all happened I was a very independent person. I relied on nobody at all to help me through situations in life.’

Clare, 50, came to Thinkaction Merton after finding out about the service from a local group.

‘I know now I was having a breakdown. I had lost my job, and the job centre was making me even more anxious and stressed. Then I lost my home, which pushed me into a depression.’

Clare self-referred to Thinkaction. ‘I had had depression before, when my daughter left home. And I went through a nightmare with that – we were close and it really hurt. When you’re in that state, nothing really makes sense.’

Clare spoke to Hannah at Thinkaction for a number of therapy sessions on the phone and found common ground talking about photography – something she had wanted to do, but had never had the opportunity to pursue. After the third or fourth session, Clare realised that she wanted to take it up again and joined a photography club.

‘We talked about techniques to manage my thoughts. The five minute rule became very handy with getting things done, because I had also developed anxiety as well as depression. By starting tasks in small time chunks it really helped me to be calm and productive. I still use it today.

‘I’m one of those people who, before this happened to me, wouldn’t even ask my friends for help. Now I’m doing okay. I’m pushing ahead with the photography. Without Hannah digging in and finding out what I wanted to do, which I couldn’t see myself, I don’t know where I would be.’
*Clare’s name has been changed

APA football competition 1996
Children’s t-shirt design competition 1993