Reaching out

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The Reach Out festival in Bristol aimed to raise awareness of carers affected by loved ones’ substance misuse. DHI’s Richard Brookes reports.

For every person grappling with drug and alcohol misuse, it’s estimated that at least five others are affected – husbands, wives and partners, mothers, fathers, siblings, children, grandchildren, friends, employers. Yet, as with most carers, their struggles go largely unacknowledged and under-supported.

_DSC1684The DHI Reach Out one-day event in Bristol – now in its seventh year – offered a unique opportunity for families and loved ones to share their experiences with peers and professionals. The event included social care professionals, families and carers already in service, and those hoping to learn more as they considered seeking support.

The programme included talks from family members and professionals, as well as a keynote speech from Duran Duran bassist John Taylor on his own personal experience of addiction as both user and concerned other. It also featured stories of recovery from three family members, who bravely chose to break the silence associated with caring for a loved one struggling with substance misuse and highlighted the value of accessing support. ‘I was only interested in getting help for my son,’ said one family member. ‘The thought of getting help for me was not something I considered. It felt selfish.’

One of the key aims of the event was to gain first-hand insight from families and carers on how to improve services. With a wide range of professionals from across the south west present, Reach Out was an opportunity to give loved ones a voice where it mattered and play an active role in shaping services for others.

Rosie Phillips, DHI’s CEO, said of the event, ‘It is impossible to underestimate the effect of addiction on families and carers of those misusing. Many suffer anxiety, depression and poor health because of the stresses and strains in their lives. This conference brought them together, alongside drug treatment and other professionals, to enable them to shape services and get the best possible support.’

_DSC1693The Helping your loved one by helping yourself session worked to develop a user-generated toolkit on regaining control of your own life and wellbeing, designed by families and carers for families and carers. The toolkit is currently being edited and designed and will be freely available from DHI’s website later this year.

Important suggestions for the toolkit included using case studies of family members’ journeys through the service to give carers relatable insight into how their situation could be improved. It was also identified that clear, easy to understand information about the nature of addiction and the cycle of change that helps carers understand what is happening to their loved one was crucial, and that there needed to be greater promotion of the positive impact that looking after yourself can have on your loved one’s chance of recovery.

The workshop was co-facilitated by Gareth Ellaway, treatment services manager for South Gloucestershire. ‘This was an extremely positive experience for those involved, many of whom had previously accessed our families and carers services as clients. To now be able to turn what was for many a very harrowing experience into something positive that may help others was clearly very empowering,’ he said.

It can take up to seven years for a family member or carer to seek help. A workshop on first steps for families and carers asked why it took so long to access support, and aimed to develop actions to address the situation. This session proved very popular with families and carers, who had plenty to say regarding their own experiences.

Workshop attendees identified a number of possible reasons for the delay in seeking help. Many families and carers had been purely focused on looking after their loved one and had no interest in seeking help for themselves. Some had felt they could ‘handle the situation’ within the family unit. It was only later they realised that their concept of support may have actually enabled their loved one to continue with their substance misuse.

The majority of participants also had no idea that support for families and carers was available, even after numerous meetings with their local GP or hospital, and there was a lack of general public awareness and understanding regarding the issue that left many feeling too isolated or ashamed to seek help.

Screen shot 2014-08-04 at 11.56.14Peter Main, Bristol’s first openly gay lord mayor, also gave some insight as to how this issue specifically affects the LGBT community. Peter’s partner died five years ago from complications caused by alcohol dependency. ‘There is a double stigma for members of the LGBT community affected by a loved one’s alcohol use,’ said Main. ‘They must not only summon up the courage to seek help regarding their partner’s addiction, but are then faced with the significant prejudice that still surrounds homosexuality.

‘To raise awareness of support available you have to go out and engage with these communities directly. This is why after taking part in today’s event I will be helping DHI promote their support services at the Bristol Pride festival in July.’

Many of DHI’s family practitioners have raised the issue of it being difficult to persuade clients of the benefits of group support. Another workshop gave those who have been reluctant to attend groups the chance to experience a taster of how they work without committing to actively participating.

One carer commented, ‘I had never felt comfortable enough about what was going on in my life to join one of the groups. I thought it would all be too raw. But I’m now more open to it, and can see it might be something I’ll benefit from in the future.’

Keynote speaker John Taylor shared his own personal experiences of addiction and its impact on others. ‘Events such as these are vital to both the families and support communities dealing daily with issues of addiction,’ he said.

‘So often they feel isolated, unclear of how to proceed and silenced by the stigma they perceive to be attached to this widespread and indiscriminate disease.’

A longtime supporter of DHI, Taylor spoke frankly about his own struggles and the value of support from services and peer support groups. ‘A day like today is important because people need encouragement. One of the big problems is acknowledging the problem, that’s the first thing. And then knowing there are solutions out there and connecting people is a big part of it too.’

Photos by Pete Cranston

DHI runs families services across Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and Bristol, and the event was supported by South Gloucestershire Council, Bath and North East Somerset Council and Rotork. www.dhi-online.org.uk

The 2014 Adfam/DDN Families First conference will be held on 23 October in London, aimed at helping to equip family members and those who support them to deal with the challenges of addiction within the family. For more information, click here