Overcoming drug and alcohol problems through recovery communities

Overcoming drug and alcohol problems through recovery communities

Substance misuse affects more than the individual - it also impacts families, employers, communities, local health services and wider society. Treatment and recovery services are often tenuously or under-funded; can be overly medicalised; work in silos and lack ongoing ‘aftercare’ for when people leave services. Addiction still carries a widespread stigma.

A young woman being comforted

Ten years ago this year, inspired by my Churchill Fellowship, I set up a charity in Wales that offers a different solution to these problems. Recovery Cymru uses peer support and shared experience to help people overcome their drug and alcohol problems and sustain recovery long term. So what have we learnt in those ten years?

When it comes to supporting people with drug and alcohol problems, ongoing peer support and organised recovery communities like ours are few and far between. ‘Aftercare’ following treatment has often been an afterthought or misunderstood. However, the ‘recovery movement’ has grown in the UK in recent years and can now demonstrate the impact of peer-led, community-based support in helping people to achieve and sustain recovery. It helps people to leave treatment services. In this context, it is important to recognise that recovery is not simply about the presence or absence of a substance, it is also about having an improved quality of life. Crucially, it can be about overcoming barriers, past traumas or mental health problems.

“I am convinced that the UK should be investing in long term peer-led community support to enable people to sustain their recovery long after any contact with treatment systems has ended.” - Sarah Vaile, Fellow

In 2011 my Fellowship took me across six states of the USA, to learn more about the ‘recovery movement’, peer support and recovery-focussed treatment services. There I discovered the passionate movement to bring recovery out of the shadows. I learnt about the logistics of running recovery community organisations, including how to work with treatment services while maintaining independence, and ways to design recovery focussed services. One of my favourite sayings from my trip was: “Experience is a brutal teacher but, by God, do you learn.” I’ll be forever grateful to the Churchill Fellowship and the projects I visited.

There are too many names to mention, but everyone who took time out to meet me was truly inspirational. People like Brooke Feldman, an active member of the recovery community in Philadelphia, who organised my visit around their transformational treatment system through the Department of Behavioural Health and Intellectual Disability Services; Dr Pohl from the Las Vegas Recovery Centre where I explored options relating to dependence on pain medications; Mark Ames, who showed me the Vermont Recovery Network which is delivering peer support across a rural location; Walter Ginter in New York, who is advocating for medication-assisted recovery via the MARS project; Carol McDaid and John Shinholser in Virginia, who are running The Mcshin Foundation with a solid social model in recovery community organisation; and the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, who showed me their take on organising the recovery community and on the role of education.

They all helped to shape my vision for Recovery Cymru. We grew rapidly and developed our model based on people in recovery helping themselves and others, as well having the opportunity to be active participants in the design and running of our programmes and organisation. My Fellowship helped Recovery Cymru to conceptualise and pioneer the first commissioned collaboration between treatment providers and the recovery community through the Cardiff and Vale Footsteps To Recovery programme. Working with Pobl and NewLink Wales, the Footsteps to Recovery Programme delivers aftercare and peer-led recovery support for when people prepare to, and exit, drug and alcohol treatment services. We also hosted Wales’ first recovery walk in 2012, and I Chaired the Recovery Group for Wales, and co-wrote the Welsh Government’s Recovery Framework. Without a doubt, our biggest success is our network of members and volunteers, who show that recovery is possible, probable and should be fun. Their stories are what we’re about and ultimately what my Fellowship has helped to support.

Through Recovery Cymru, I’ve seen how important it is to build good relationships with treatment providers, commissioners and the government, to be able to coordinate peer-support. When recovery community organisations are given the opportunity to develop, deliver and shape the options available to people in or seeking recovery, this can truly transform the quality of support they are able to provide.

I am convinced that the UK should be investing in long-term, peer-led community support, to enable people to sustain their recovery long after any contact with treatment systems has ended. But it’s important to make this genuine and sustainable. We should be nurturing the power of lived experience; supporting peer leaders; and helping recovery communities to organise. This will be transformational for individuals and their families, provide a good return on investment in treatment services, and reduce the negative impact of substance misuse on the NHS, employers and society.

As Recovery Cymru celebrates its tenth anniversary, we have big plans in place. We want to reach people earlier, including those who don’t have access to treatment. We want to design new programmes, including an exploration of the role of peer support in addressing how trauma and mental health impact recovery. We want to help employers to address substance misuse in the workplace and keep those who are recovering in employment. We want to use our experience to train others and develop our flagship volunteering programme. We want to raise awareness of recovery, challenging stigma and discrimination. Ultimately, we want people to move on from their problems and sustain recovery.

2020 will be a year of celebration, reflection and development. We will be running events, launching our new training and consultancy programmes and we will continue working with our members and volunteers to identify what is needed for the ten years to come. Just a couple of things to keep us busy….

Visit the Recovery Cymru website to find out more.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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