Community chest

This year’s RiTC conference asked what a recovery community could and should mean. DDN listened to the debate 

Screen shot 2014-11-03 at 13.35.05

‘Whether through peer-led and mutual aid recovery initiatives or treatment services, it is agreed that the role of community in addiction recovery is vital. But there seems to be differing visions of what community means… Does there need to be a provider of a recovery community or should we be leaving it to the community itself?’

These were the key questions put to the audience of the Recovery in the Community (RiTC) conference, held by Sheffield Alcohol Support Service (SASS) last month, and to get the debate started, Rowdy Yates, senior research fellow at the University of Stirling, explored the history of recovery groups and their common themes.

Acknowledging that the therapeutic community structure ‘teaches impulse control in a safe setting’ and ‘encourages positive citizenship’, he had a message for the ‘two main players’ – mutual aid fellowships and methadone prescribers: ‘Stop calling it a disease. It’s a disorder you can recover from.’

‘Experts say it’s an incurable disease – let’s just stop it,’ he said, adding: ‘We need to be more visible with our recovery. We need to remove employment barriers… we need to remove this stigma.’

A key to this was in encouraging ‘recovered addicts’ to participate in treatment, and to make activities such as recovery marches more visible. ‘We need to see addicts as an asset to the community.’ Without such initiatives we were doomed to create a situation where addiction was transmitted down the generations, whereas creating better parents would reduce the chance of repeating the cycle.

SASS’s chief executive Josie Soutar then introduced a lively panel discussion called ‘hands off our community’ to look at ownership, funding and identity of the recovery community, including plenty of comment from the floor.

‘Is this the best of times or the worst of times,’ she asked.

‘In terms of commissioning, it’s the worst of times,’ said Clive Hallam, drugs commissioning manager at Barnsley DAAT. ‘But in terms of people coming through, it’s the best of times.’ It was important to sustain ‘strong creative individuals’ and their ideas, he said.

Deb Drinkwater, freelance trainer and co-director of the Dry Umbrella, an alcohol-free bar in Manchester, said it felt like a good time for getting results. ‘I’ve seen a massive change. I’ve felt like a lone sheep but community development is now seen as a viable model,’ she said.

Geoff H, ‘a grateful member of AA’, felt that it was ‘an excellent time for recovery in the community’, thanks to the links that were being developed. ‘It shouldn’t be one size fits all and through links with PHE we’ve created links throughout the country,’ he said.  

David Badcock, head of recovery engagement at Addaction, also felt that it was ‘a really good time for people to engage with the wider recovery community’, which gave ‘much better outcomes’. He mentioned the in2recovery website (supported by Addaction and run by Michaela Jones), Addaction’s recovery conference and the charity’s mutual aid programme to demonstrate that ‘the sector has changed and we at Addaction have definitely changed’, with a greater emphasis on helping people reintegrate into mainstream life.

Mark Gilman, strategic recovery lead for PHE, also believed it was the best of times, moving beyond fear-driven treatment to successful treatment in the community, ‘where recovery lives’.

Just as the panel agreed on the positives, each panellist was keen that engagement – through such channels as mutual aid – was voluntary and not mandated.

‘I believe people should be given choice in recovery,’ said Geoff H from AA. ‘We’re caught in a corner and driven by the industry – it’s a real shame.’

‘When people are sent, it really bothers me,’ added Hallam, who said mutual aid should be used for the right reasons. Badcock added that the lack of choice was his ‘lease favourite scenario’, Drinkwater said people had to want to change and Gilman compared the mandated aid scenario to that in the US.

The best way forward was for ‘the community to take over’, according to the panel. Drinkwater’s alcohol-free space was powered by hard work and social media, developing organically, with commissioning teams noticing what worked well on the ground.

Badcock also added his vote to initiatives that demonstrated that ‘recovery in the community is happening’ and showed ‘where community knows best’.