A new normal

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Within days of lockdown being announced, Lancashire’s recovery communities had transformed their way of life on a grand scale, as Chris Lee explains.

LUF Lounge
Read the full feature in DDN Magazine

We are all living with significant changes as a result of the threat posed by COVID-19. For some this is just another factor in busy lives, for others it’s a real threat to a safe and functioning lifestyle. The pressures of isolation, worries about money, housing, food, keeping children occupied and all of us safe will be creating untold pressures and risks for some.

The UK recovery movement might have drifted from the popular narrative, however in parts of the country, thriving, diverse recovery communities are adapting to the ‘new normal’. We wanted to highlight how two organisations, Red Rose Recovery/Lancashire User Forum (LUF) and The Well Communities are adapting to support those in recovery and beyond.

Lancashire has had a sustainable and thriving recovery scene for well over a decade. This had led to well-developed peer support structures, training, employment, group work, activities, volunteering and more. All of this is delivered very much as an asset-based community development approach – local people with lived experience supporting other local people with lived experience.

LUF Live LoungeThe Old Normal

In the current circumstances, some ‘normal’ work is still ongoing, albeit under the guidance of physical distancing, use of appropriate protective equipment and essential journeys:

  • In the early days of lockdown donations of food and toiletries from high street retailers were delivered to the elderly, homeless and vulnerable, along with packs from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.
  • Volunteers have been supporting the delivery of more than 600 meals a day to feed individuals who are vulnerable, isolated, quarantined or shielded in local communities; information about digital support is distributed through the food parcels.
  • Local treatment providers have been supported to deliver naloxone and safe storage boxes
  • Support has been given to individuals in recovery housing.

However, with no face-to-face mutual aid running and normal peer support ‘suspended’, a dramatic shift to digital provision has been implemented locally to do all we can to ensure no one is left behind. Both Red Rose Recovery and The Well Communities have rapidly embraced digital tools and shifted support online within days of the UK lockdown coming into force. This emphasises the flexibility of community organisations and the principle of building delivery around those who use them.

This isn’t perfect, but sharing the learning has been key to the success of recovery communities locally. One simple issue has been to try to buy mobile phones and credit for those with no resource and therefore at risk of isolation, or to actively support people to download software and give tutorials to support access.

The New Normal

Employed workers and volunteers in the recovery communities are desperate to help those in need in any way they can. It took a while to get them to recognise the severity of the situation, the risks involved and to adapt to new ways of working. However, now as always, they have proved how they adapt quickly and develop new skills to enable work to continue safely.

The ‘new normal’ is being supported with daily team Zoom meetings (other platforms are available), and regular outreach is now via telephone and social media platforms and tools – WhatsApp and Facebook. This aims to replicate as far as possible the principles of pre-COVID delivery but with the added bonus that group work is now open to all without geographical restrictions.

Since the lockdown began:

  • more than 15 online support groups are running each week with regular participation
  • live exercise classes (weekly) achieve around 100 views per session and active participation
  • recovery shares (weekly) are viewed by up to 500 people
  • live topic broadcast (with field experts) are viewed by up to 700 people

Both organisations have also inadvertently created ‘flagship’ broadcasts. Red Rose Recovery and the Lancashire User Forum developed the ‘LUF Lounge’ on Saturday evenings at 5pm – hosted on Zoom and broadcast to Facebook as a live stream. The Well have been using Facebook to live stream for broadcasts on Monday and Friday each week at 12 noon. Both events have drawn in both local and national figures to update, educate, support and entertain our recovery communities.

Both organisations have been collaborating to share experience of the technology, to support each other’s approaches in reaching out and provide meaningful content for the local recovery communities – and beyond. Digital delivery has meant reaching recovery communities in Wales, Australia and New York!

New partnerships are appearing as a result of the new digital world, for example working with local housing providers to support delivery of food parcels in the physical world and support them to access the online offer.

LUF Live LoungeThe Lessons

What are we learning as a result of all this?

  • Isolation and mental health have been key issues raised, especially from those in supported housing as they are almost confined to their bedrooms (although we know that not all are keeping to lockdown rules and meeting up with friends etc).
  • People are struggling when they are unable to see their children and other family members; this is also undermining some people’s mental health.
  • There is a perceived increase in relapse; local treatment provision has seen an increase in referrals.
  • Another key concern is that those who have experienced crime, assault or dispute are desperate for personal contact, something no digital transformation can ever overcome.
  • Facebook and Twitter followers are rapidly increasing alongside significant increases in requests for support.
  • The beauty of digital is that the analytics are available to help inform reach. We can see an unprecedented surge in views with a global reach from the broadcast events so far.

The future

This has yet again highlighted the inherent value of community organisations and community participation. It has shone a light on the need to address digital inclusion and ensure people have access to the right tools to enable participation, alongside other existing social, economic and health inequalities.

Plans are currently being developed to build on these early developments and to bring along other groups who wish to join in, to build digital inclusion, develop the new digital skills and embrace what technology has to offer. This will include technical, social and policy development needs.

The future is clearly unknown. When will lockdown measures begin to ease, how will that happen and what restrictions will remain? All are questions that society as a whole will be grappling with. What is certain is that the digital shift in delivery for recovery communities locally is here to stay. Yes, the physical world is important and digital cannot replace much of ‘normal’ recovery activity. However the ability to reach out beyond borders (of whatever sort), to share stories, experiences, music and thought in times of crisis is aided by digital platforms. The increased connectivity is making a difference, for example people who suffer with anxiety or those living in rural communities. We can’t just go back to ‘normal’.


FIND OUT MORE

Chris Lee is public health specialist at Lancashire County Council

chris.lee@lancashire.gov.uk

Peter Yarwood, strategic engagement lead, Red Rose Recovery, peter@RedRoseRecovery.org.uk

David Higham, CEO, The Well Communities, dave@thewell2.co.uk

LUF Lounge: www.facebook.com/groups/279396408828996

The Well Communities: www.facebook.com/groups/thewellcommunities/