Literacy and drug treatment

Richard HomerThe writing’s on the wall

Literacy issues can be a barrier to participant engagement and successful outcomes in substance misuse treatment programmes. Richard Homer explores the reasons why

There’s a host of common challenges when delivering drug treatment programmes. One of the biggest is how to ensure participants understand and retain the content presented to them.

There are five persistent limitations that prevent individuals from accessing the right treatment for their level of understanding: many programmes place emphasis on written work, but classroom environments can be difficult for those with negative experiences of school and topics and terminology can confuse those who struggle to grasp the extent of their substance misuse. People with English as an additional language, meanwhile, are rarely provided for, and basic training for facilitators is sometimes missing.

With the right approach, these are preventable – even when coupled with additional factors such as poor concentration (often due to detox) and restrictive attendance criteria. However, another key limitation in many cases is the comprehension of a programme’s content. Many programmes do not allow for personal academic ability, mental health, language or cultural differences. As a result, programme content can be confusing due to the diverse way in which teaching can be delivered and learned.

Substance misuse programmes are often ‘word-heavy’, and require participants to ex­press themselves in a universal way. Govern­ment data shows that a high percent­age of individuals accessing treatment have low literacy levels and learning disabilities. Many have jumped hurdles to start a treatment programme, only to discover the material requires a level of focus, comprehen­sion or language beyond their ability

So why does this problem need to be tackled? While low literacy doesn’t necessarily lead to drug and alcohol issues, it is imperative that we address substance misuse in a way that is accessible to all abilities and learning styles. Ignoring this will result in certain groups of people falling through the cracks of the treatment system and never reaching their potential for recovery.

Richard Homer is managing director of Vivid Training