Building a network

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Charlotte TarrantCharlotte Tarrant explains how Equinox Care’s mutual aid groups for cannabis and alcohol misuse have built a network of support for local users

In 2012, Equinox Care was awarded two grants by Hertfordshire County Council – one to develop mutual help options for local people with alcohol dependence, the other for individuals who wanted to end or reduce their cannabis use.

The project started in late 2012. The aim was to set up confidential networks in Watford and Three Rivers, which would become self-sustaining by the end of 2013. The cannabis network initially targeted young adults in Watford, aged 18 to 24, whereas the alcohol network targeted professional people in Three Rivers. We found there were many people drinking above safe levels who were not accessing alcohol support. This included people in demanding jobs, commuting into London, who were experiencing work stress and overcompensating with alcohol.

In January 2013, an alcohol leaflet went out to homes and businesses in Rickmansworth, targeting places where professionals accessed services such as hairdressers, newsagents, restaurants, pubs and clubs. Promotion for the cannabis network started in February. With BBC Three Counties Radio, the Watford Observer and My Ricky News providing supportive local media coverage, notices were also placed on the Three Rivers District Council website.

We put on a stakeholders meeting to network with local and countywide providers, and subsequently, the Equinox project managers met with service providers and attended team meetings, explaining referral procedures. They also met with the community mental health team, GPs, the YMCA and A&E referral workers.

In March 2013, premises for the confidential groups were secured, and in April the cannabis and alcohol groups began in Watford and Rickmansworth, respectively. Location was the key to success, with the cannabis venue proving more accessible. During 2013, the cannabis group grew steadily. A solid core group formed – between six and 14 men and women of all ages attend every week.

They went on to form a peer steering group (which is supported by Equinox but self-facilitating). They have created their own website, www.noneed4weed.org.uk, as well as posters and leaflets, which feature their original illustrations and content. These have been distributed to doctors’ surgeries in the Watford area.

Equinox CareGroup member Terry needed to give up smoking cannabis due to an emphysema diagnosis. ‘I suggested that everyone swapped phone numbers so we could support each other,’ he explained. ‘So now, anyone who says they are cutting down or quitting, we send messages to support them. It really makes a difference. One of the guys on the group has a dad who is a website engineer, so we also have a cannabis group website with a forum.’

The Three Rivers alcohol group retained the same members each week, but after Equinox’s year of involvement ended, the alcohol group ceased to exist. The main learning point has been that the target group of professional people, who were not accessing alcohol support in any form, needed to identify their drinking as problematic first, typically with one-to-one counselling. This might have established the motivation to attend mutual support meetings.

Chief executive of Equinox Care, Bill Puddicombe, explained, ‘The argument for working with alcohol users seemed the stronger. There is a long tradition of mutual help proving beneficial in aiding the recovery of alcohol-dependent people.

‘As it turned out, the cannabis project was the success. While there are strong indications that mutual help can be successful in assisting with recovery from drug dependency, little of the work that we could find was with cannabis users. Our two local staff, Kathy Young and Jackie Groves, quickly found a group of people in Watford who were keen to end their cannabis use. They moved the group forward with our help. It was always the intention that Equinox assisted in the creation of the recovery community and moved on. Now the cannabis group is self-supporting and going from strength to strength.

‘We learned that it is not a good idea to predict who will take up the mutual help offer. Our research had suggested that dependent drinkers, in work and relatively affluent, would find this a more palatable option than local treatment services. In fact they were more drawn to privately funded services, such as counselling.’

Brian Gale, senior commissioning manager for public health at Hertfordshire County Council, added, ‘It has been enlightening to see how this initiative has developed. The programme plan was to engage the wider community and then establish the groups on the basis of this engagement, although this meant the group took a long time to establish. On reflection, it would have perhaps been more beneficial to timetable and deliver the group provision for people alongside the programme of community engagement.

‘However, overall we are pleased with the establishment of a cannabis group in the area and will be interested to see how this continues to develop over time as a resource for local people.’

Charlotte Tarrant is marketing manager at Equinox Care, www.equinoxcare.org.uk. For more information about the Watford mutual support network email charlotte.tarrant@equinoxcare.org.uk