Former users help others kick the drug habit

Photo: Marc Baker and Selena Hussey, Drug Service volunteers

Published: 10 June 2019

The Torbay Drug and Alcohol Service has recruited new volunteer staff with direct experience of the service.

The Drug and Alcohol Service (D&A), provided by Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, has taken on former clients as volunteers for the first time in a public role – on reception at the service HQ at Walnut Lodge.

The new ‘meet-and-greet’ personnel have benefited from the service’s professional and peer support and are now keen to give something back, by helping others and themselves on their pathway to being free of dependency.

Volunteer Co-ordinator Jane Anderson, said: “We are delighted to welcome our new volunteers into reception here at Walnut Lodge. They will be welcoming anyone who comes in trying to ease anyone’s anxiety making cups of tea, generally being an additional friendly face to the service.

“They’ll also be helping jointly organise workshops by having a say in the way they are run and the content. They’ll also sometimes be taking part themselves by giving inspirational talks on how they have recovered from dependency and how others could do the same. This is effectively bringing lived experience front of house with peer mentors working alongside professionals.”

Volunteers have a direct positive influence on helping addicts through their treatment to lead healthy and happy lives. They come from a huge variety of backgrounds with an array of experience and talents, for instance ex-service personnel have a unique insight to help former colleagues.

Jane added: “Those with drug and alcohol dependency issues respond well to former users who have lived the same experience. The peer supporters work alongside service users to give hope and ambition to addicts – showing them that even in the depths of despair it is possible to come out of the other side.

“Volunteers give added value to our work and are all unpaid. Our volunteers are inspirational, we value them greatly, and anyone who is interested should contact me!”

Volunteers are all interviewed formally and trained. The peer supporters also work as volunteer Community Champions, They can be that vital link in introducing service users to mutual aid groups run by UK Smart, or other volunteer-based self-help groups.

Volunteer Marc Baker has come a long way since spending 25 years as a drug user, including heroin. He credits the drug service with helping him become ‘clean’ for the last two years, having supported him for 16 years.

He is the first former user through the service to now be studying for a qualification in substance misuse service support and is a trained counsellor.

Marc said: “I owe the service such a lot and I’m now giving back what I can. I understand the mind-set of the addicts, having been a heroin user for many years. I know how people can get so low and depressed that they think there’s no future.

“Because I’ve been a user and been as low as them, I can form mutual connections with clients and its most rewarding when they say they identify with me. The volunteering not only helps clients but gives me purpose and reward.”

Marc also helps prepare rehabilitation groups which users have to attend to qualify for the service support.

Selena Hussey, was a heroin user for 20 years before beginning a new clean life with the help of the addiction service. She came off the medication nine months ago – medication which has helped keep her off drugs.

She volunteers on Walnut Lodge reception. She said: “I’m in recovery after a life time of heroin addiction. I volunteer in Walnut Lodge welcoming visitors and clients. The work gives me a purpose and I feel useful. I’m getting more confident and would like to get a paid job of some kind eventually somewhere, this is the first step. I talk to clients a lot and they relate to me because of my experience.

“The highlights of my work are when users say to me I have made a difference to them. The difference to staff is that I have lived–in experience and know what it is like to be stuck in a situation which you desperately want to get out of – but can’t see a way.

“I know people don’t recognise that they are the only ones who can change their lives – not anyone else. I’m not seen as judgemental either, so clients open up to me and accept my advice.”

Contact Torbay Drug and Alcohol Service on 01803 604330.