As England enters its second week of lockdown, our thoughts are with the families affected by drugs, alcohol and gambling for whom the first lockdown was particularly difficult. According to our new report Families in Lockdown, 85% of people affected by a loved one’s problematic substance or gambling surveyed by Adfam felt that lockdown was making it harder to cope. So what of the people working under conditions of severe constraint to support families who are coming under increased pressure as a result of COVID-19? During the first national lockdown Adfam surveyed a number of practitioners, representative of a large range of roles within the drug, alcohol and gambling and family support sector about their experiences. Our insights provide a suitable starting point from which to consider and evaluate the family support sectors next steps as we weather the second period of isolation.
Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of the services professionals are able to provide. Over half of our practitioner focus group reported that they had to reduce their group activities, and 40% reported having to reduce the amount of 1-1 support sessions. One practitioner told us that they have had to cut their structural formal interventions, e.g. 5-Step, SMART or CRAFT services, and another told us that their organisation has ceased to facilitate 1-1 peer support services altogether. Two respondents told us that their services have had to reduce the number of families they engage with. This disruption comes at a time of acute need: most of our respondents felt that lockdown has had a ‘considerable’ negative effect on the families and friends of people experiencing drug, alcohol or gambling problems. It was largely felt that the mental health and physical well-being of family members being supported in relation to somebody else’s substance use or problematic gambling had suffered as a result of the lockdown, and that family members were on the whole feeling more isolated than before.
This has proved challenging for practitioners working in new and ever-changing conditions. Although each of the services asked intend to return to normal service delivery as soon as they are able, it seems some positive take-aways may have emerged from the initial lockdown. Working from home has allowed practitioners to work at their own pace. According to one practitioner, it also meant that non-client facing tasks, such as staff meetings, could be carried out more efficiently. Much more support work is now being carried out over the telephone, or by other virtual means. What is gained in regards to ease of access to services, is perhaps countered by the loss of the kind of personal connection that doesn’t come in analogue. However, if periodical lockdowns are here to stay, it would seem sensible for public services in general to invest time out of lockdown in helping service- users to become comfortable with alternative, technological means of accessing support.
The practitioners who spoke to Adfam paid testament to the resilient, adaptable nature of the drugs, alcohol, gambling and family support sectors. But the winter lockdown is likely to give rise to further challenges. Christmas, and other family focused holidays, can be a difficult time for families affected by substance use or problem gambling. And of course, the problems that have plagued services over the last decade, namely underfunding, will continue to make family support practitioner’s jobs harder during the winter lockdown, as well as after. Perhaps, however, these tough past months, and the tough months to come, may make policy makers and the public alike more mindful of the vulnerabilities families face behind closed doors, and the importance of sustained support for family services.