As the year draws to a close, it is an appropriate time for some reflection. This year has been a year like no other, and we hope that next year will be better for everybody. Although it’s disappointing that on the eve of 2021 – a date that seems unimaginably futuristic - we’re looking back at a year where addiction has been able to thrive, it’s also hugely encouraging to think of the progress that has been made, the resilience that people in recovery have shown, the way that treatment centres, services and fellowships have adapted, and the amount of people who have found recovery and started on new journeys for themselves and their families. It’s hugely important that we acknowledge the progress along with the setbacks, giving us hope as we enter a new year.
As we started a new decade in January 2020 Action on Addiction looked forward to a new period of renewal and growth; working to reach more people affected by addiction whatever its form, wherever it struck and whoever it impacted. We also made a commitment to address the stigma surrounding addiction with a major public facing campaign.
By mid-March we were writing our first Covid related blog. At this point all of us at Action on Addiction were clear that the virus was here to stay and was going to have a significant impact on everybody’s lives. Our annual alumni reunion, as well as our stigma capmpaign, were postponed.
As far as addiction was concerned, we were alarmed that the necessarily drastic social distancing and resulting isolation required to fight the pandemic was the anthesis of recovery, whose very cornerstone is connection and community. We were deeply concerned about the impact this might have on people in active addiction, in the early stages of addiction, their families and children, and on people in recovery, especially those new to it.
We wrote “Addiction is often referred to as a disease of isolation. In recovery, human connections and networks are carefully planned and mapped in treatment to maintain and support people in continued abstinence to live happy and fulfilling lives. The social isolation needed to combat the spread of coronavirus poses an additional challenge to traditional models of addiction treatment and recovery.” To read the full article click here.
At this difficult time, when face to face 12 Step meetings could not take place, it was heartening to see the blossoming of 12 step fellowship video meetings, which many reported were a lifeline. Individuals in recovery were finding new ways of carrying the message to newcomers. Communities were rallying, new shoots of hope were emerging from the seemingly frozen ground of the lockdown.
By that point Clouds House had introduced strict infection control measures. Measures that would prove vital to the charity and to the people we seek to support, whilst some were difficult (ending face to face family visits), these measures have made sure that Clouds House continues to treat and provide life-saving care throughout the pandemic. Huge commitments were made to keeping Clouds House open, with everybody going the extra mile and way beyond the traditional call of duty; and all staff and volunteers were heartened by the words of encouragement from our Patron, Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge, recognising this dedication in a letter to all staff in the spring.
Despite the glimmers of hope from the anecdotal good news stories we garnered, by mid-April we knew that on the whole the pandemic was facilitating a surge in addiction, and adversely affecting recovery. The National Lockdown brought anxiety, stress, financial insecurity, furlough and with it the isolation and fear that created the perfect storm for addiction to flourish. We witnessed scenes from hospital wards none of us in 21st Century Britain ever thought we would witness. And some of us, have suffered the worst possible outcome with the terrible loss of a loved one.
Since the summer we have heard lots of stories and research about the impact of the pandemic. Public debate will often refer to mental health consequences, some of which are clear to see, some hidden – all will have a lasting and emerging impact on our future lives and society.
But at Action on Addiction we continue to ask if the wider health implications for the UK are clearly understood yet, and will they ever be? Do commentators really know what they refer to when they discuss the ‘mental health’ challenges of the pandemic? Are they including addiction? And, if they do, what are they going to do about it?
After many Hansard searches we are yet to find a mention of addiction in a Parliamentary pandemic debate. But we do know that in too many families and communities, addiction has been wreaking more havoc than usual this year as as direct consequence of the unique Covid related circumstances.
In June we published a poll – a temperature check on how the lockdown was impacting addiction. We found that 39% of people surveyed who were in recovery from an addiction prior to lockdown had experienced a relapse or re-occurrence of their addictive behaviour since lockdown, which could have meant that on a national scale over a million people had experienced some kind of relapse. 26% of people surveyed with a family member in recovery prior to lockdown reported a loved one experiencing a relapse or re-occurrence. 25% of those not in recovery had increased their drinking since the start of lockdown, (equivalent to 12.5 million people), of whom 15% (up to 1.9 million people) reported that they were experiencing problems associated with their drinking, such as relationship difficulties, managing work, sleeping problems, physical symptoms of withdrawal, debt.) To read the full report click here.
In October, The Royal College of Psychiatrists called for a multi-million-pound spending boost on the back of their own analysis that as many as 8 million people were drinking at high risk. In a supportive statement Action on Addiction’s Chief Executive Graham Beech reinforced this call saying, “one of the lessons from the pandemic is that it has never been more important than now to invest in evidence-based recovery that will give people to live their lives free from the ravages of addiction.” To read the full statement click here.
This prompted us to write about our perception of addiction being the elephant in the room. Everyone knows it’s there; no one is talking about it. But addiction is everybody’s business. We wrote that addiction should feature in all the conversations about the negative impact of lockdown on vulnerable children and families, in the discussions about children’s health and wellbeing, in relation to the increased loneliness and isolation experienced by young people during lockdown, in the context of strained family relationships. All conversations where addiction hardly receives a mention. To view the full article click here.
It is our intention in 2021 to continue the work we do campaigning for these changes. There is a sense that for the first time in many years people are slowly paying attention to addiction, recognising that addiction can happen to anyone, at any point in their lives. We have had more media enquiries this year than ever before. We were hugely proud to have been involved in advising the scriptwriters of The Archers on their addiction related storyline, and also proudly witnessed the podcast “Hooked: The Unexpected Addicts” win 3 major National awards. Visits to our website surpassed all previous years as a result of launching the “Advice” pages and “In Conversation” videos.
In 2021 we will continue providing the lifesaving and life-changing addiction treatment that we provide at Clouds House, through our SHARP services in Liverpool and Essex, at The Brink in Liverpool, and via our M-PACT (Moving Parents and Children Together Programme,) as well as continuing to provide education and training via our hugely important Centre for Addiction Treatment studies. We will carry out more research to support our thinking and our strategies.
Throughout everything we do, we are hugely fortunate to have, and are so grateful for the continued support of our Patron. Even at the height of the first wave, The Duchess continued to boost staff morale at a very difficult time, raising public awareness on the impact of addiction with a ground-breaking virtual visit to Clouds House – which was also a perfect example of how the isolation caused by social distancing can be overcome using modern technology. We thank The Duchess from the bottom of our hearts.
Despite the lows of 2020 and the pandemic-related impact on addiction, we know that major progress has been already been made and much, much more is possible, with the right awareness, support, treatment, intervention and hope.
Just like Covid, addiction, if left unfettered can grow, it can destroy families and end lives. But there is a way out through support, community and treatment.
We wish everybody a safe and Happy New Year, with the hope of better 2021.
Sally Benton, Director of Strategy and Communications