A place to connect: Addaction’s two-day conference

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6th National Conference @ Capthorne Hotel, Crawley addaction: www.addaction.org.uk 21 & 22 November 2016 picture by Robert Piwko / www.robertpiwko.co.uk www.facebook.com/RobertPiwkoPhotography www.twitter.com/robertpiwko
Pictures courtesy of www.robertpiwko.co.uk

Addaction’s two-day conference addressed emotional wellbeing while celebrating the value of shared experience, as DDN reports.

‘Learn, share, connect and celebrate,’ urged David Badcock, Addaction’s head of events, opening the charity’s two-day conference on addiction and mental health.

The need to connect soon became a strong theme. ‘I always felt so different from everyone else at school,’ said mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin – the first speaker to start the conversation about the feelings of isolation that pushed him to the brink of suicide. In his case, the eventual diagnosis was schizoaffective disorder – a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar – but it was not the hospitalisation or the medication that made him want to live. Standing on a bridge in London, contemplating the worst, he was approached by a man who said ‘I’m not going to let you jump’.

‘A few things that he said changed everything,’ said Benjamin. ‘The real turning point for me was him saying to me “look mate, I think you’ll get better”. No one had ever said that to me before.

‘When you’re in that phase, you have no faith left in yourself. So for someone else to put their faith in you – that was what changed my mind… here was a guy willing to listen to me and not judge, and be patient and show compassion. I had hope where I’d never had hope before.’

He explained how he began talking about his mental health without embarrassment. Working with the charity Rethink, he began going into schools, prisons, hospitals and businesses to try to break the stigma – ‘that shame and that silence’ around mental health.

‘I was in a cycle – either drunk, or hungover or both,’ said Sarah Fitzpatrick, describing the painful lead-up to realising she needed to connect. Still drinking and in a violent relationship when she became pregnant, it was the mother she didn’t get on with who phoned social services. ‘When social services took my daughter away, I was very, very angry,’ she said. ‘I thought, “what’s the point?” I’d lost my daughter, my house, everything.’

Connecting with Addaction completely changed her life. ‘I remember my first session – I fell off the chair. After about six weeks I sobered up and was listening more. Joyce, my keyworker, is like my mam. She said “we’re telling you what you need to do, but it’s you who needs to do it.”’

Gethin Jones described his route to disengagement when a troubled and trouble­some schoolboy, with his ‘life aged zero to 35 in one big social services filing cabinet’.

‘Never once did a teacher ask me why I acted the way I did. They would say, “Gethin, why are you so disruptive? Gethin, you’re never going to amount to anything.” Those words stuck with me and I started to think, “I don’t want your school. I don’t need your education. I don’t need to be around people like you.’

Sentenced to a detention centre, the frightened 14-year-old child was ‘curled up in a prison bed, in a cell, the blanket over my head, crying into my pillow. I wanted someone to take me away, I wanted to feel safe. Nobody came.’ The belief system that grew within him for the next 20 years was that he didn’t need to have anything to do with anyone – a ‘journey of self-destruction’ that ended in a four-year custodial sentence.

While in prison, he met people who wanted to help him and ‘sowed the seeds that rehabilitation was possible’. But it was a member of the prison outreach team, he says, that ‘connected with me as a human being. Jo never judged or condemned me – she would always be consistent, ask how she could help. She was inspirational to my journey and started to take me through into other services, so they could help and support me.’ With no education, no employment record and ‘no social skills whatsoever’, Jo put him on the path to qualifications and found him a volunteering role.

‘So her support and integrated way of working enabled me to move forward in my life quite quickly. From somebody who felt that they could never amount to anything, I went from two hours a week volunteering to becoming a service manager overseeing a staff team of 40.

‘I’ve heard so many people wondering what they’re going to do about the broken system and lack of support,’ Jones told the audience. ‘But the solution is in this room. All of you have ideas and can think what you can do to make the system better for the people that we support. The next stage is to talk about it, share it – with your peers, your manager, people of influence. Then the most important part is the action – get on and do it.’

Through chairing a panel session, Anna Whitton, Addaction’s executive director of services, wanted to look more closely at why the system wasn’t working for everyone.

‘A young person said to me, “I have nothing to offer the system and the system has nothing to offer me”, she said. ‘It made me think, how do we empower people? How do we integrate and co-design services for the most vulnerable in society? What is it that’s not working?’

‘The system is very much broken, as we’re missing multiple opportunities to intervene,’ said Isabelle Goldie, director of the Mental Health Foundation. This was the case from perinatal services, to teachers missing chances to intervene in class, to adulthood, where one in three GP appointments related to mental health problems. ‘Instead of demonising people, we need to ask what’s gone wrong,’ she said. ‘There’s not enough research about what would make a difference.’

‘People’s lives aren’t straightforward,’ said Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind. ‘People don’t work in silos, but systems often do. Most people don’t “just” have a mental health problem.’ Campaigns such as Time to Change gave people a chance to talk about their experiences with mental health and could be a ‘real powerhouse’ in shifting the narrative, he said.

This narrative also needed to acknowledge the differences between treating women and men, said Katharine Sacks-Jones, director of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk.

‘Women don’t really feature in the conversation about substance misuse and can find that services are designed as default services for men,’ she said. ‘They are a minority in services and often policymakers aren’t thinking about them. But we need to treat them as individuals, and need to understand what shapes their lives… women are sick of telling their story again and again. We need to design services so they don’t have to.’

Sunny Dhadley, director of the Recovery Foundation, brought the essential service user perspective – from both personal and professional experiences. ‘The criminal justice system is seen as a necessary intervention, but this has to change,’ he said. Service users had an ‘absolutely crucial’ role in shaping the system, but he was concerned about shrinking budgets, and the parts of services that could be ‘left to one side’, as well as the detrimental effect on the previously ‘massive service user involvement in the drug and alcohol field’.

Bringing the first day’s programme to a close, was ‘A walk through Addaction’, where the conference was turned into ‘conversation café’ and the round tables in the hall were themed by 16 different projects from all over the country. Delegates ‘speed-dated’ their way around the tables and had the opportunity to discuss projects with presenters, taking up David Badcock’s initial invitation to ‘learn, share and connect’.

Among the final day’s diverse presentations, the theme of service user involvement was resumed by Stephen Molloy, director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD). ‘We need to invite and involve people who use drugs into services,’ he told the conference. ‘It’s got to be meaningful engagement of people who use drugs – and not about when they’re two years clean, but about where they’re at.’ Key to this was developing community advisory boards, just as there were for many other medical conditions.

‘People who use drugs don’t have that voice anymore in the UK,’ he said. ‘We used to have it, but those organisations don’t exist anymore. We have to see drug user activism and whether you’re a drug user or not, you have to be part of that community.

‘We’ve become the deserving versus the undeserving and drug-related deaths are rocketing… If we don’t challenge, governments will carry on doing what they’re doing.’ In the closing session, Welsh rugby legend Scott Quinnell brought together the themes and turned them into a rallying cry.

‘It doesn’t matter what you struggle with,’ he said, talking about the dyslexia that gave him the impression he was ‘thick, stupid and lazy’ in school. ‘When you’re told by people you trust, that’s what you become’, with a disastrous effect on self-esteem.

‘So tell people “you can do anything you want in life. Believe in yourself”,’ he said. He had turned around his prospects because he had asked for help – ‘but more importantly, someone asked him ‘how can I help you?’

And that is why you’re so important,’ he told delegates. ‘Put a smile on their face – help them. You are the people making a difference.’