The Elephant in the purple room

Having worked with a number of recovery communities and services across the U.K over the last decade, it still surprises me how reliant we have become on volunteers. Local authority budgets have been drastically cut in recent years and commissioned treatment provider caseloads in many cases are at unmanageable levels, with recovery workers firefighting complex cases or looking for quick discharges of others with varying levels of ‘sobriety’, it is perhaps no wonder that the integration of volunteer roles has gathered pace. I have visited services with volunteers on reception, running groups, mentoring, providing needle exchange services, doing home visits, and many other roles that were previously paid positions. Whilst this is undoubtedly great to see, and there are clear benefits to both the individual and service as a whole when you treat people as assets rather than just ‘service users’, I am frequently met with frustrations from volunteers, some of which i will attempt to articulate here.

The 2015 UK Life in Recovery survey found that those in recovery volunteer for local services at twice the rate of the general public. ‘we only keep what we have, by giving it away’ is the mantra.

Are service providers over reliant on volunteers? Do those volunteers receive the support and training they need and deserve?

We are frequently reminded, as people in recovery that we should be grateful, and how much ‘giving back’ supports our own wellbeing and recovery. These things are indisputable, I frequently do my own gratitude lists and meditations, as well as volunteer where I can, and I certainly wouldn’t have had a career in substance use without volunteer peer mentoring for my local service at the start of my journey. When I got my first paid position for a local treatment provider I had been volunteering for 18 months, had 27p on the electric meter and was under a sanction from the job centre for missing an appointment while volunteering. I was fortunate to have managers that believed in me, and be given the opportunity to create a job position where there wasn’t one before. That afforded me a pathway back into meaningful employment.

The elephant in the room however is the increasing pressure placed on volunteers in early recovery, and the lack of meaningful support received in many cases. Early recovery as defined by William White is anything under 12 months. Sometimes this period is referred to as the pink fluffy cloud of recovery, often this is the best life has ever been, we are substance free and we start to appreciate life and notice the small things. We want to give back and carry the message that we do recover.

We all love to hear success stories, from despair to hope. It gives us a warm feeling that recovery is possible and helps those earlier in their journey to identify. It is undoubtedly why many of us do what we do. Change is a beautiful thing.

Whilst there is undoubtedly lots of value in sharing our story, to celebrate change, inspire hope and promote visible recovery in our communities, I am often left wondering what support or guidance these brave individuals have in doing so, and also what happens when, as in many cases they serve their purpose, eventually lose their spark, or relapse. We all know that aftercare provision in the UK is in many cases woefully inadequate STILL. There is also an inherent stigma to re presenting at a treatment provider for a volunteer after a relapse. After being placed on a pedestal, overcoming those feelings of shame can be a real barrier. Does the organisation have a relapse policy, and is this equitable and supportive?

Services can be very quick to get their new successes to share their story and get them involved with volunteering. (some would say to evidence their services’ efficacy for future commissioning bids and to tick a ‘service user involvement’ box).

With record numbers of drug related deaths, fewer people entering treatment for alcohol use, and fewer successful exits (whatever successful means in reality) according to PHE statistics, the role of a peer worker is now more important than ever, but it should not compromise your personal recovery.

So what support do we really give these volunteer superstars managing receptions, running groups, facilitating access to mutual aid, mentoring, and generally making working life easier for paid staff and services across the UK that receive millions in contracts to provide services.?

Often, in my experience it is nothing more than inhouse or online training around safeguarding, confidentiality and a DBS to tick the boxes for the provider. I recognise that in the postcode lottery of UK service provision there are areas of really good practice with some great training options including accredited courses and regular supervisions, as well as pathways back into employment, however in my experience this is more the exception than the norm.

So whilst I agree that this recent shift towards enabling those in recovery to empower themselves through volunteering is a positive one on the whole, it must also be balanced with adequate resources and support for them, as well as recognition that their individual recovery is paramount. Volunteering should never be detrimental to personal recovery. Volunteers are more than just free labour, and volunteers should be compensated for the time they give freely.

Whether they are called, recovery champions, peer mentors, peer support workers or volunteers the important roles these individuals play deserve more resources, support and respect than is currently given in many areas. Particularly if they are integral to the delivery of a commissioned service. There is no greater resource than time, and these individuals give theirs freely, the least we could do is give them the skills and support they deserve to;

a) fulfil their role responsibilities to the best of their ability b) build their skills for the future c) have proper supervision d) feel like a valued and respected member of the team

Have local services in your area changed their mindset from ‘fixing and treating’ individuals in recent years to a more person centred community asset based approach? Does your local provider actually provide meaningful volunteer opportunities, as well as adequate support, training and a pathway back into employment? I would love to hear of your lived experiences. Feel free to drop me a confidential message to carlozuccaro@hotmail.co.uk.