Thursday, 24 November 2011

Hurrah for Balloons

Dr Marcus Roberts, Director of Membership and Policy, DrugScope

I was recently talking to some colleagues about the outbreak of purple balloons on the website of the National Treatment Agency - you may have seen the photographs of people in parks releasing them to symbolise and celebrate recovery.

Some people I talked to responded sceptically. What did balloon launches have to do with the day-to-day realities of delivering drug and alcohol services - particularly during a period of financial austerity? Weren't these images trivialising the challenges that confront our sector at a time of profound change and not a little anxiety?

Well, yes, the recovery walking is going to ring a bit hollow if the balloons are drifting over treatment services that are struggling for survival. Equally, there is a risk that this kind of affirmation and celebration will become narrowly associated with an exclusivist version of recovery - one that celebrates only a narrow range of outcomes, ignores the significance of 'small steps' and leaves much of the day-to-day work that drug and alcohol services do for individuals, families and communities in the shadows.

Allowing for these caveats, I think that the appearance of balloons on the NTA website is a resonant symbol of what is a momentous and positive step for the development of substance misuse services in our country.

For a start, these images look exactly like something you'd find in campaigning materials for 'mainstream' fields of health and social care (such as heart disease or cancer) and that represents a significant shift in perceptions of our sector and service users.

Fear drove the emergence of drug and alcohol services in the 1980s - specifically, the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other blood borne viruses. Fear drove the expansion of drug treatment from the late 1990s - it was all about crime reduction. Both these phases had a profoundly positive impact. As a result of a harm focussed approach, we now have one of the lowest rates of HIV transmission among injecting drug users in the world, and we should never undervalue our sector's contribution to reducing drug-related crime - which disproportionately impacts on some of the most deprived neighbourhoods and communities.

It is an open question how effective positive visions of reintegration and recovery will be in sustaining investment in drug and alcohol services with the devolution of more control to local decision makers in a period of austerity. I can see why arguments around crime reduction and community safety may be more appealing to elected local politicians than a focus on recovery and social reintegration, particularly in a time of austerity (although recent polling by DrugScope and the UK Drug Policy Commission shows a high level of public support for the provision of high quality drug and alcohol services on health and social grounds).

Be this as it may, it is no small thing that politicians are now talking more about recovery and reintegration and less about disease and crime. Perhaps for the first time - beginning under New Labour and continuing under the current government - we are organising our practice and thinking about drug and alcohol treatment increasingly around a concept ('recovery') which is about hope, not fear.

This article first appeared in DrugScope’s Members Briefing. For information about becoming a DrugScope member visit here.

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