‘To change people’s behaviour we have to challenge them’

I was one of those drug users from Merseyside whose life became entrenched in the search for that lovely warm feeling inside your stomach that heroin gives you. I spent most of the 1980s in and out of jail for shoplifting or for failing to surrender to the courts.

I became isolated from my family, my community and most of the time I walked with my head down to avoid people I had known. I developed mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and thought about taking my life on numerous occasions.

I have now been free from drug and mental health problems for over 13 years but I still have bouts of mild depression and anxiety due to life stresses. Since 1995 I have worked as a professional in a variety of services for people with drug, alcohol and mental health issues.

When I think about how my experiences have impacted on my practice, I often think about when I first left rehab and how I started preaching to people about the dangers of drugs and not enough about the good things people get from them. I suppose I also thought people could get off drugs the same way as me; all they had to do was follow the path I took.

I quickly learned that people needed to find their own way to become drugfree and all I could do was support and encourage them. I also realised the importance of keeping my boundaries clear with clients and that because of my past it was easy for me to collude with them when they tried to justify their behaviour, such as committing crimes.

I started to understand that if we are to help people change their behaviour then we need to challenge them. Over the years I have started to think that it is important we work with organisations such as the police, social services and the courts to help people take responsibility for their actions.

A lot of professionals believe they have deep, meaningful relationships with clients and that they need to protect this at all costs, but this leads to clients continuing to commit crime and spending most of their time in and out of services and prison.

Because of my own mental health issues I feel we need to do more with this client group to engage them back into mainstream society. Through my training I try to change professional behaviour by teaching them how to engage with clients in a way that challenges both the client and the worker but continues to be sensitive to issues such as mental health and social exclusion.

The profile of drug misusers has changed over the past few years, and many heroin and crack cocaine users are 30 years old and upwards. We have a merging issue of alcohol, cannabis and cocaine use from 10 to 40-plus years, which I believe will impact greatly on both mental health and drug services. We really do need to ensure that services are geared up for them and not focused on the long-term heroin users.

John Bucknall is young people’s strategic commissioning manager and workforce development lead at Warrington drug action team



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