This blog takes in some stories and reflections from last weekend’s 4th UK Recovery Walk, some related learning from the RSA's own work programme on recovery, and links to our new work on commissioning.
When I arrived at the assembly point on Hove Lawns half an hour before the scheduled start, I was somewhat concerned. Where was the large number of people registered to attend this year’s recovery walk? Perhaps the unseasonal sunshine had offered up other opportunities more appealing than a two and a half mile uphill walk through Brighton? The stewards and volunteers (who did an excellent job throughout the day) left it as long as they dared before finally calling people to gather round the opening speaker. Then, as the first words of welcome projected from the speakers, the crowd swelled as previously hidden people flocked in from the beach, the promenade, and the nearby shops and cafes. The scattered fragments of recovery had become a recovery network, humming with anticipation and excitement. The promised turnout had been reached (or perhaps even surpassed).
The speakers finished and the walk commenced with a palpable sense of joy and shared experience. T-shirts and banners testified to the fact that this was indeed a national walk – recovery groups from Warrington, Lancashire, Durham, Birmingham, Westminster, and nearby Adur (among many others) made their presence known, adding great voice to the colour (WARRINGTON, LA LA, LA!). We snaked our way through the town, swapping stories and good wishes. The crowd was peppered with familiar faces from various RSA projects – it was wonderful to see so many people from Peterborough, Bognor Regis, Crawley and Kent where we have worked in recent years looking so well and celebrating their recovery.
Everyone wanted to talk and connect to those around them. I struck up conversation with a young guy next to me. 'Is that a Bichon Frise?' he asked. I had brought my dog along on the walk. 'It is, yes.' 'I've got one of those. I used to have a twelve stone Rottweiler, but I got rid of it when I got clean. Much as I loved him, it just didn't kind of fit me anymore. I'm not angry like I used to be, you lose all that don't you? So, my mum comes round with this box, I open it up, and there's this little ball of fluff inside – a Bichon. I wouldn't be without him now. Says a lot about how recovery has changed me I suppose. Mind you, I was always a Bichon at heart, on the inside'.
The police, shoppers, and locals added to the sense of celebration, in places cheering the walk along like an Olympic event (although perhaps an equal number of locals seemed bemused and tried to work out the theme and purpose of the march). We reached our destination at Preston Park, grateful for the water handed out by CRI. We had more speakers and more celebration. Caroline Lucas, the local MP for Brighton Pavilion described the event as incredibly inspiring, providing a chance for people who have sought and gained recovery to come together with family and friends to challenge the stigma around addiction, improve understanding, and bring hope to those struggling with substance misuse. Several bands kept the natural high going through the afternoon.
Scattered around the stage and stalls were message boards, offering people a chance for personal reflection, remembrance, and celebration. I started talking with a woman (let’s call her Sue) from South London, a long-time alcoholic recently in recovery. She told me about her broken relationships with her children and siblings, exhausted from the stresses of trying to live with and support someone with an addiction. The very fact that she had come on the walk had prompted her sister to get in touch for the first time in years. She had found out from a friend that Sue was now in recovery and had made the effort to travel down to Brighton by herself to cement and celebrate her recovery. The relief and nervous joy in her face in retelling the story brought a lump to both our throats. From here she looked forward to reconnecting with her kids.
I am pleased that the RSA in some small way supported this excellent event. Local Fellows provided a small grant to help in the planning stage, and our staff sat on early planning committee meetings and helped to promote and transport some people to the event. This is one of the things that distinguishes the RSA and makes it a fantastic organisation – its interest in and commitment to landing both policy change and action, as our new Action and Research Centre attests. But the real plaudits go to the group of people in recovery who organised such an uplifting and well-executed event.
More broadly, raising the profile and visibility of recovery is an important part of changing the public perception of those suffering addiction and of reducing the stigma felt by some of those most marginalised in society. The RSA's West Kent Whole Person Recovery programme aims to generate this visibility and promote public dialogue, connecting the notion of recovery and the people in it to the wider parts of their communities from which they are often removed. By weaving together disparate individuals and interests (of service users, RSA Fellows and other citizens and local organisations and businesses) into productive networks, we can provide our service users with opportunities for engagement, action, influence, and skills they might otherwise not receive. (If you live or work in Kent and would like to participate in one of these community hubs, please get in touch.)
National walks and local recovery networks can help to create the cultural shift, social spaces, and support that aid people in moving away from entrenched networks and patterns of problem drug and alcohol use. For the individual, they can inspire a difficult step to be taken on a recovery journey. More broadly, they help society to see people with substance misuse issues for the fellow citizens that they are.
The UK Recovery Walk achieves the necessary scale to raise visibility because of the fact it is a UK-wide event and many people make the effort to march and show solidarity with others from different communities. But does the Walk also manage to add value to host cities, this year Brighton, last year Cardiff? This may not be its core purpose of course, but it is worth asking the question of how we capitalise on these events locally.
My sense is that hosting the walk imparts a confidence, status and pride in the existing recovery communities in host cities, positioning them as national hubs of recovery and inspiring local people with substance misuse to begin and/or continue their recovery journey. But I fear this direct impact at the local level is fleeting, and walks have yet to break new ground in host cities in significant ways. This previous blog touches on how recovery in Brighton could become a genuinely community-wide concern, engaging and working with a much broader range of city-stakeholders.
What is the role of the walk in affecting this kind of engagement? Perhaps a city would need to repeat the walk annually, turning it into a regular fixture on the community calendar and embedding it (and by extension recovery) in the fabric of the place. But does a city by itself have the critical mass to sustain an annual walk, and what are the consequences for the policy of rotating the venue around different UK cities and the benefits this brings? Perhaps a smaller, but regular, visible local event (in recovery month), that grows over time and through repetition is the answer. Further, what is the best way to engage those city's citizens, businesses, and other institutions currently not actively engaged in recovery? This is a challenge the RSA's Whole Person Recovery programme has confronted in its work in West Kent in trying to establish local recovery communities.
Our experience is showing that a blended approach to local engagement is required with two connected strands. We have organised a cluster of debates, activities, workshops, and training events that are clearly positioned as being 'about recovery'. We then work through existing networks and one to one engagement to bring in other stakeholders to these events from outside existing recovery communities. Similarly, we are developing a cluster of events and activities that are broadly about local community and economic development. This clusters starts from the broad concerns of many local stakeholders and ensures our service users are included in these co-productive networks to tackle common areas of concern and aspiration. This strand helps to surface commanilities and create bridges between seemingly unconnected people and organisations. Such a two-pronged strategy imparts both a shared understanding of recovery, and wider social and economic inclusion for those in recovery. All events are facilitated carefully to ensure they are empowering, inclusive, value-adding experiences for our service users, and for other local people.
But such approaches require significant work. Commissioners should ensure that these kinds of recovery capital strategies, that add value to broader policy domains, are included and supported (through funding and through the use of existing networks to local businesses and so on) in future commissioning.
This raises the question of the balance commissioners should strike between investing in services that generate personal recovery capital, and the extent to which they should foster wider social, community recovery capital that creates the spaces, networks and conditions for people to more easily sustain their recovery in their communities. This is one of the themes the RSA is exploring in a new project on Best Practice Commissioning in the substance misuse sector, but I will leave that for another blog. It also links to the question of how commissioners can use the Public Services (Social Value) Act to generate more local social value through public procurement. Again, that is for another blog – but this time, here's one I prepared earlier.