Learning curve: Involving social work students in substance misuse

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mjBringing together social work students and people in recovery gave an opportunity to share skills and knowledge, as Marelize Joubert reports.

Attending a substance misuse conference with the theme of recovery gave social work students at Sheffield Hallam University the chance to find out more about drug and alcohol services, listen first hand to peer mentors’ stories about recovery, and hear about what works in services. The conference, hosted by the university’s social work department, also allowed the students to learn about career opportunities.

The rationale for the conference came from research by Professor Sarah Galvani and Debra Allnock that highlighted the gaps in knowledge and skills around substance use education that newly qualified social workers need before qualifying. This is brought sharply into focus by the increasing prevalence of substance use as a significant factor in child protection and safeguarding for both vulnerable children and adults, highlighted by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE).

A key feature of the day was collaboration with a wide range of social care and health practitioners, peer mentors and volunteers from Aspire, the commissioned drug and alcohol service in Doncaster. Aspire delivered a range of workshops that covered everything from parental substance misuse to the role of medication in assisting recovery. Volunteers and peer mentors were fully involved in the day, with one workshop focusing on the role of ‘champions’ in recovery.

‘We were delighted to be involved in the conference being delivered to student social workers,’ said Stuart Green, Aspire services manager. ‘Aspire delegates were able to offer insight into treatment services and theoretical models of addiction from a hands on approach.’

Research also underpinned the day, with Prof David Best sharing his recent research around recovery, including the importance of relationships and connections. Research has shown that those who experience recovery can become ‘better than well’, he told students.

Best explained how change becomes more possible when research is backed up by the cost savings that could be made in economic and social terms by delivering recovery-based services. He gave an example of the importance of identity and visible recovery by sharing his research around the work in Blackpool by Jobs, Friends and Houses – a service that has the simple and effective idea of providing opportunities for jobs, housing and supportive networks to those leaving prison (DDN, June, page 8).

Michaela Jones added a political and personal context to the concept of recovery, talking about how services and recovery fitted within the current climate of austerity. A further session led by Dr Jamie Irving from the university’s department of criminology and law, introduced the Sheffield Addiction Recovery Research Group (SARRG), which aims to establish Sheffield as a beacon of excellence around recovery in the UK.

Delegates heard how SARRG is peer-led and aims to support recovery-focused groups, and promote recovery-oriented activities and research. Through forging key alliances with local services such as Sheffield Alcohol Support Service, the Amy Winehouse Foundation and the local DACT, the group undertakes research and action to better understand the pathways out of addiction and into recovery.

One of SAARG’s key aims is to help reduce stigma, by supporting partner organisations and helping to provide an evidence base that will inform best recovery practices such as the recovery capital measurement tool but one of its distinct characteristics is the very real partnership between those in recovery, researchers and services. By giving practical examples of some of the recovery-focused events that have been taking place in Sheffield – bike rides, conferences, workshops – he showed how they linked to research around the importance of feeling ‘connected’.

The presence of peer mentors and volunteers as delegates and participants gave meaning to the term ‘visible recovery’, for as well as participating in the day’s programme, they talked to students about their own experiences and felt empowered as ‘community connectors’.

‘The day was a great help in getting the perspective of potential social workers and an insight into what kind of concerns or questions they may have in their future roles, and having the opportunity to dispel certain views or misconceptions about addiction and recovery,’ said one peer mentor.

Student feedback certainly seemed to confirm that they had also gained a lot from the day.

‘Working with people hard to engage made me more aware of the issues of stigma, especially around how government policy drives this, to how a person may hide information due to shame,’ said one, while another commented:

‘Substance misuse can affect anyone for many reasons. Addiction is like a seeping wound and the impacts are significantly detrimental and corroding to the emotional, physical, financial and social wellbeing of the user and their families. I have learned that recovery can be successful with the invaluable support of expert, compassionate, non-judgemental workers dedicated to providing practical and emotional support to individuals in crisis because of addiction.’

Marelize Joubert is lecturer in social work at Sheffield Hallam University