Friday, 20 February 2015

What does a good life mean to you?

It might mean having a safe and secure home; forming respectful and trusting relationships; or experiencing new places and activities. In fact, I'd be surprised if at least one of those didn't feature in your answer.

Recently researchers from Revolving Doors Agency asked members of their national service user forum – all of whom have experience of multiple needs, including drug and alcohol misuse – to think about this question.

They produced collages (right, and below) that represented their ideas of a good life, and then talked through them. A report describing the process was published yesterday, and makes for a fascinating read. Looking through it, a few things occurred to me.

Firstly, those basic components of the good life I mentioned earlier are as important to people facing complex situations such as drug dependency as anyone else – and arguably more so.

This should be obvious, but often our public debate treats people with serious problems as if they can only be defined in terms of what's gone wrong. Ask people what they want to achieve, though, and you get a very different response. For instance, one participant said:
“That’s just … what I would like, to be able to, sleeping easy at night, not worrying, security, not worrying, just to be able to feel safe in my own house, not having the door banging in or, yeah bailiffs, no police, no dealers, no owing money, just … happy place."
Secondly, work is a hugely important part of this picture. One person, talking about their job, said: “I respect myself, I feel good cos I’m one of the workers coming home from work and life’s normal.”

This echoes the findings of our project with Making Every Adult Matter, Voices from the Frontline. Many people with experience of multiple needs see meaningful work as a central goal - even if they're some distance from full-time employment.

Finally, it made me think about the role of treatment services. Some people involved in the study felt that an important step towards the life they wanted was ceasing to be dependent on services. However, others recognised the value of the strong, positive relationships that they formed through accessing them.

The recovery movement rightly acknowledges the importance of creating a supportive community within which people can resolve their challenges. Sometimes, though, this comes with strong expectations about the manner in which people need to change their lives, and at what speed.

The report concludes (and for what it's worth, I agree) that as far as possible, someone seeking help must decide for themselves what a better life looks like. That requires a support system that can reconcile professionals' views on what’s most important – reducing drug use, getting a home, getting a job – with people's own personal goals.

(Importantly, it also provides reason to think that coercing people into accessing treatment, as has recently been proposed, is unlikely to help people achieve lasting change.)

It follows from this that the system mustn't put barriers in the way of success. Through our work on Voices from the Frontline, we've seen how the unintended consequences of government policy can hold people back from realising the kind of life they want to lead. This valuable research helps strengthen the case for why that has to change.

Sam Thomas is the programme manager for Voices from the Frontline. Follow him on Twitter @iamsamthomas

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