Frontline reporting

The afternoon’s interactive session heard some inspiring accounts of what service users were doing to make their voices heard. 

‘Things are changing, and everything is going to be local,’ said FDAP chief executive Carole Sharma, introducing the afternoon’s interactive session. ‘Essentially, this government is resigning from governing, and wants things to be decided locally.’ This meant it would no longer be possible to say to providers and commissioners, ‘You have to do it this way,’ she stressed. ‘So you’ll need to influence anyone you can get on your side.’

The best means of doing this was through a powerful, collective voice, and the session heard a range of service user representatives from around the country describe how they were supporting their peers and getting their messages across.

‘We set up because there was a lack of provision for recovery in our local area,’ said Steve from Changes UK. ‘If you’ve got a dream and a vision that you can make a difference in your community, then you should do it.’ Engaging with the Changes UK community meant that when people did get a job and their own accommodation they were genuinely ready for it, he said. ‘We’ve got an 88 per cent success rate of people maintaining recovery.’ 

The group had also set up a homeless outreach service, and was now expanding into a wider geographical area, as well as providing services such as IT and web support to local businesses in exchange for a percentage of their profits. ‘We’re a community interest company, and we’re really proactive in our local community,’ he said. ‘We’d much rather do that to bring in revenue than go to commissioners for a hand out. We’re having a go, we’re taking risks – before it was just professionals, but now there’s an opportunity for us to deliver services.’ In spite of the wider economic climate, the future was ‘really exciting’ he told the conference. 

Richard, one of the organisers of the fifth UK Recovery Walk in Birmingham later this year told delegates how sheer enthusiasm and determination were paying dividends. ‘It’s going to be a fantastic event. It’s bloody hard work, but we’ve got a passionate group together to do it.’ 

With budgets being set at local level it was essential that the needs of service users were met, said Jason of Wolverhampton service user involvement team SUIT. ‘We build pathways and create opportunities. After we’ve sourced an organisation we don’t just send service users there – we go along and make sure that their needs are being met. It’s imperative that outcomes are clearly demonstrated, and because we’re able to do that we’ve had a 50 per cent increase in our grant.’ His organisation worked closely with a range of agencies and institutions, and had a constantly updated website that allowed service users to leave detailed feedback, he said. 

‘We’re filling a need,’ stressed one delegate. ‘It’s so important to open up new social networks for people who have been through the services’, while another pointed out that many areas still did not have an effective advocacy service. ‘That can make such a difference,’ he said. 

Other delegates described activities such as operating drop-in centres, coffee mornings, recovery cafes and gyms, alternative therapy groups, women’s groups and choirs, as well as working closely with the police, probation and Jobcentre Plus and even opening a charity shop. ‘We don’t want to be dependent on certain types of funding for our services – it’s even got us into the local chamber of commerce.’ 

A representative from the newly formed UK Recovery Radio, meanwhile, described how her organisation had been set up to ‘inspire, promote and celebrate recovery from addiction’ via its podcasts. It also aimed to register as a charity and establish training for others, she told the event.  

‘At our last meeting there were 275 people wanting recovery,’ said a representative of Lancashire LUF. ‘That’s awesome. People can recover from a hopeless state.’ 

The session closed with a rousing presentation from health campaigner and activist Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt, who described both her own story and the importance of continued lobbying and campaigning. ‘My journey started in Phoenix House – it was 1986 and we were told there was a new virus out there that we had to take very seriously,’ she said. ‘There was a great need for opiate pain control and we had to argue very forcefully to get that for our peers.’

A decade later a coalition of drug users and clinicians set up the John Mordaunt Trust, named in honour of her late husband, an AIDS activist whose quote ‘There is no war on drugs. There is, and always has been, a war on drug users’ had been adopted by activists across the world. 

Even Margaret Thatcher had seen the value in harm reduction, she stressed,  ‘although obviously not for our sakes. But since then we’ve basically gone round and round in circles, in a roughly ten-year cycle. So what happens now? Do we want a country without pride, where we put people behind bars because they’re drug-dependent?

‘For a long time we’ve complained about outside involvement in service user representation,’ she said. ‘Now we have a chance to do things on our own. But you need to be clear about what you want to do – for example, does it include advocacy?’

It was also vital to heal the schism between abstinence and harm reduction, she stated. ‘We know that dead addicts don’t recover, and we have far more in common than we have differences. Your recovery walks sound really inspiring, but can we ensure that when you’re walking you have your drug-using peers next to you? We’re dealing with serious issues, so let’s make sure we have fun at the same time.

‘We’re part of a history of a group of people who have been persecuted and criminalised for a long time. Enough is enough.’  DDN