Three sector stalwarts, who were there at the start, look back at the birth of DDN
When they threw everything into DDN I thought they’d taken leave of their senses, says Simon Shepherd
Back in the early summer of 2004, as director of FDAP, I’d agreed to meet two people from a public health magazine to discuss the idea of a special issue on substance misuse. We were due to meet in a hotel in Brighton, where I was based and they were covering a conference, but I couldn’t find them (it turns out they’d been just around the corner!). It was a lovely day and on the way back to the office I stopped for lunch by the beach. While I waited, they called and asked if they could join me there. I agreed but it soon became clear their company wanted money for their special issue, and that was never going to happen!
As I got up to leave, they asked if I thought that there was a case for a regular magazine specifically about substance misuse and distributed free across the field. I sat down again. A couple of hours later we’d sketched out the bones of what it might look like, we’d even thought of a name, Drink and Drugs News, but in truth I couldn’t see how they’d make it work and didn’t really expect to hear from them again.
When Claire and Ian called to say they’d decided to quit their jobs and throw everything into DDN I thought they had taken leave of their senses – but they were convinced they could make it work, and I agreed to help.
Although we held regular meetings over the summer, I was astonished, when the first issue came out, by the magazine’s overall quality and the range of issues it covered. It’s amazing to think that all that was ten years ago now and, given the challenges they faced, that the magazine has not only survived but thrived in that time.
It’s hard to over-state the impact that DDN has had. While the Labour government set up the NTA in 2001 and committed significant funding to treatment, there really wasn’t much of a field back then. The sector was riven between two seemingly intractable camps, those committed to harm minimisation on one side, and the abstinence-based camp on the other, and there was little sense of substance misuse work as a profession.
While I am not pretending that all is now rosy in the garden, there is a clear sense of the sector as a profession, and a shared identity which extends across the field as a whole. They obviously didn’t do it alone – I’d like to think, for instance, that FDAP played at least a small part itself – but DDN’s very existence, its comprehensive coverage of all aspects of substance misuse treatment, its commitment to editorial neutrality and the evidence base, and the outstanding quality of its writing, have all played a huge role.
The success of DDN is of course all down to Claire and Ian, but I am glad we did eventually meet that day, or perhaps it would never have happened…
DDN started at a time of change, remembers Dr Chris Ford
I can’t believe that DDN has been around for a decade – and haven’t they done a good job! I first met Claire at a conference just before publication of the first edition of DDN. We got talking and I instantly liked her. I was amazed that she hadn’t worked in this area before but she seemed to get it and there was born a great ongoing relationship, both with Claire and then the rest of the team.
DDN started at a time of change and the magazine always kept us abreast of the changes. They always tried to present all sides of the argument, even at times when I wished they would be more biased! It was really exciting times for treatment in general practice (with the number of GPs involved in care of people who use drugs rising from below 1 per cent in 1994 to over 32 per cent of practices in 2012. This change was helped by the birth of SMMGP in 1995 (a network to specifically support primary care practitioners when there was nothing), our annual conference now in its 20th year, and RCGP training courses.
Claire and the team have always been a ‘can do’ lot – as a 90-year-old once told me ‘no such thing as can’t, you just take the ‘t’ off!’ So when I suggested a column about treating people in general practice called ‘Post-its from practice’, they were up for it. Then when the Alliance wanted to get to more people, the joint service user involvement conference was born, and is now in its eighth year.
Although often uphill, everything seemed to be advancing until a government change, bringing with it a philosophy change. Recovery, as with any positive change and self-defined journey, is wonderful and we have always promoted that. But contracting services that provide ‘one size fits all’ and dramatically cutting budgets is not congenial to person-centred care, which for me is the only way possible. Set that in a climate of destroying the NHS and general practice, increasing privatisation of all treatments and the madness of constant re-tendering, and it feels a difficult time at the moment.
But I’m an optimist and there are so many amazing people both using and working in the sector I feel confident that things will again improve.
Thank you DDN for being there!
Dr Chris Ford, retired GP and clinical director of IDHDP
A letter from Prof David Clark, author of our hugely popular series of Background Briefings
Dear Claire and Ian,
Firstly, a huge congratulations for DDN’s tenth birthday! Can you fly me back for cake and champers?
Do you remember approaching Simon Shepherd (FDAP) and me (WIRED) all those years ago and asking whether we thought the DDN concept would work? Our answer was brief – ‘Yes!’ – and our enthusiasm obvious. Not that you needed much encouragement. You saw a niche and have taken DDN to where it is today.
I’d started WIRED (later Wired In) as a way of empowering people to overcome substance use problems at the end of the millennium. I left a successful 25-year neuroscience career and started working with real people.
I knew that quality information and education was key to helping people recover and to improving addiction treatment. I knew that we needed to create hope and connect people.
My colleagues and I started the news portal Daily Dose in 2001 and over the years a variety of other Wired In community based initiatives – personal stories, research, an online recovery community (Wired In To Recovery). Sadly, we always struggled for funding, so were limited in what we could achieve. Mind you, I’m very proud of what the Wired In team (Lucie, Kev, Sarah and Ash) achieved.
One of my favourite activities was writing an educational column, Background Briefings, for DDN. It was fun and stimulating. I still remember Claire’s calls saying the deadline was an hour away! I was touched by the amount of positive feedback I received and still have each briefing in my study drawer.
Gosh, we had some good times then, didn’t we Claire and Ian? You were a very stimulating duet to work with… but I sometimes had to watch my health in the evening!
When I look back, the real highlight for me during this time was seeing people recover from their addiction. Their joy and gratitude was beautiful! So many of these people overcame great adversity… and then went on to help other people. Amazing!
They were exciting times and I feel really proud being part of that early recovery advocacy movement in the UK. Mind you, they were tough times as well, because there was shit flying around. The addiction care system is very resistant to change, in part because of vested interests. Ironic really, when people working in and overseeing the system were being paid to help people with addiction problems change their behaviour!
For those of you wondering what I am doing now, I took early retirement from Swansea University in 2006 and moved to Perth, Australia in 2008. Last year, I started Recovery Stories (www.recoverystories.info) and Sharing Culture (www.sharingculture.info). The latter is focused on helping indigenous people in Australia (and further afield) overcome historical trauma and its consequences.
I am very excited by this latter project. It will be my toughest challenge, but I know that my close colleague, filmmaker Michael Liu, and I can make something happen if we can attract funding. I am appalled at the way that indigenous people in Australia are treated – and what they still go through – and I am very determined to help make a difference. They are beautiful people and their culture special.
Maybe I can do another DDN Background Briefing one day?
Professor David Clark’s Background Briefings are available in our back issues in the magazine archive.