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  • David Best, Ph.D.

Recovery Allies and Recovery Cascades

What is the background?

Alison Jones Webb has produced an excellent book called “Recovery Allies: How to support addiction recovery and build recovery-friendly communities” (published by North Atlantic Books in 2022). The book details some key concepts around recovery capital and the key role that allies and supporters can play in promoting not only the recovery pathways of their loved ones but also to make recovery more visible and accessible in communities.

I am currently involved in two initiatives where this issue has arisen. First through the College of Lived Experience Recovery Organisations, we recently hosted an initial online meeting of our ‘Tier 3’ group – those who are not Lived Experience Recovery Organisation members or representatives but who are committed to the recovery agenda and to promoting the voice and inclusion of lived experience skills and knowledge in policy and practice.

Second, I am involved in the wonderful GRID Voices project, designed to promote the voice of Lived Experience in service commissioning and delivery in Derbyshire, close to my heart as well as close to my home. Here we are trying to create a twin track of groups – the first to create a platform and a radius of trust for lived experience and second, to create a support group around it of professionals and community members committed to this initiative and its underlying philosophy.

So what is this blog about?

What I would like to do is to explain the concept of a recovery coalition (in particular around building community recovery capital) and to introduce the concept of a recovery cascade – which is about creating the conditions in which recovery contagions can happen.

The fundamental premise – as originally asserted by William White is that the primary means of recovery emergence is through a process of ‘contagion’ in which recovery is ‘transmitted’ from one person who is successfully role-modelling recovery by living a fulfilling and meaningful life (that often involves giving back) t another who is at an earlier stage of their journey. This can happen through individual and personal connection but also through group processes and is fundamental to the way that mutual aid fellowships work – indeed, in the 12-step fellowships, Step 12 is explicitly about spreading the message of recovery and helping others on that journey.

So where does that leave professionals without their own lived experience, far less family members or other community members who are driven to support recovery journeys and pathways? In the course of my career I have collected over 3,000 recovery stories in a range of countries and there are plenty of occasions where a recovery story involved a professional with no lived experience ‘going the extra yard’ or showing faith and hope that the person did not see in themselves. This is part of the reason why we characterise recovery as a fundamentally social process where individuals and groups can both be the catalyst for change but also be the safety net and the rock of stability and constancy that keeps the person on the right track.

But that is only a part of the answer, even for those with direct contact through treatment services, through the justice system or through a multitude of other services that a person might engage in while still in the throes of addiction or early in their recovery. In that therapeutic role, there are three primary roles:

1. The power of connection and making a fundamental human link of trust and openness

2. Through the delivery of evidence-based interventions

3. By connecting the person to activities and groups in the community

4. As a bridge to recovery groups and recovery carriers

It is the last two of these that will occupy the remainder of this blog – the role of connector and its underlying principles of active engagement. One of the most important tasks that a recovery ally can perform is to get out of the clinic and establish relationships and partnerships that will allow them to fulfil effectively the ‘care coordination’ role and, within a recovery framework, that really means building partnerships and relationships with community groups as well as with other professionals. To be effective as a recovery ally based in specialist treatment or criminal justice settings, it is not only important to have positive relationships with your equivalents in mental health, housing and employment services, but also to know the enrolment procedure at the local college, to know where and when local AA and NA meetings happen and to know what the local sports clubs are where there is little risk of drinking and drug use. I am still amazed that people are allowed to be drug and alcohol workers without ever attending an AA, NA AND a SMART recovery meeting. This knowledge and experience should be an absolute prerequisite for working in the addiction treatment field.

But that knowledge is not enough. Our own research and that of many others would strongly suggest that awareness of positive community resources is not sufficient and that, to be an effective ally, or champion of recovery, you have to be able to act as the human bridge that actively and assertively engages people in those resources. From our Glasgow Recovery Study in 2011, we used the acronym GOYA for ‘Get Off Your Arse’ to indicate that meaningful activity is central to the recovery process. For peers, professionals and other recovery allies, this is just as true – while a therapist or counsellor can maybe sit in their office providing therapies and dispensing evidence-based wisdom, this is not the case for a recovery ally. They must be out there and actively and positively engaging and promoting recovery resources and models.

But in a generative recovery capital model, this is not a passive approach. All recovery allies – family members, workers, supporters and so on – are community connectors and part of the lattice of weak social ties that bind community resources together and allow them to flourish and engage excluded and marginalised groups. This is not some kind of act of charity but an essential component of a recovery system and model in which reciprocal community development is at its heart – as each recovery journey flourishes, so the community strengthens and its collective efficacy grows.

Recovery is at heart a social process based in communities and that benefits those same communities. Recovery allies – inside and outside of specialist professional roles – are at the heart of this model through championing change and creating coalitions that support and engage, that challenge stigma and build and strengthen the fabric of the local community for all of its residents, visitors and representatives.

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