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HLN meets… Dot Smith, CEO Recovery Connections

Having recently been crowned North East Charity Leader of the Year, we chat to Dot about how common addiction problems are here in the region and how a new student initiative may help.

Written by High Life North
Published 18.11.2021

By Lucy Nichol

Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the North East was hit by a record number of alcohol-related deaths.

It’s clear that the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on our mental health and wellbeing, with drink, drug and addiction problems spiralling for many, particularly those who have become more isolated throughout lockdown. However, there are many circumstances that can also trigger addiction problems – meaning that the support on offer needs to be diverse and person-centred.

We spoke to the newly crowned North East Charity Leader of the Year, Dot Smith, about her role in the region’s recovery community as CEO of Middlesbrough-based charity, Recovery Connections, and why she’s recently launched a national student recovery platform.

Congratulations on your recent award! How does it feel to be named North East Charity Leader of the Year?

I was quite honestly flabbergasted! It was such an honour to be recognised like that, but I certainly couldn’t do it without the amazing team we have at Recovery Connections. We currently employ over 45 staff, many of whom are in recovery themselves, so it’s very much a team effort to deliver our many services and peer support groups.

Can you tell us more about Recovery Connections and the support on offer around the North East?

We’re headquartered in Middlesbrough, but we also have services in Stockton and Gateshead. We’re primarily a peer-led organisation, meaning we place significant value on the power of lived experience and peer support. However, our two rehabilitation centres form a core part of our work, as does our trauma counselling service.

I think one of the biggest misunderstandings relating to addiction is this idea that it’s all about the substance (e.g. alcohol or drugs), or the process (e.g. gambling or shopping). These are rarely the root cause of the problem and are more often a symptomatic behaviour of a much bigger problem. That’s why it’s important for us to challenge stigma, provide peer support and offer therapies that can deal with root psychological or social causes – trauma being a common factor that we come across an awful lot.

We also, through our social enterprises, create skills development and volunteering opportunities for people in recovery, as well as creating safe sober spaces. Our Fork in the Road Café and Bloom Florists provide us with income to ensure ongoing delivery of support services but, at the same time, create social and employment opportunities for people using our services too.

Why do you think there is still so much stigma related to addiction? 

It’s such a complex problem. Often, all we see are the behaviours or the symptoms, rather than the root cause, which makes it difficult for some people to offer sympathy.

I think that policy, legislation and funding streams play a role in this too, as they separate out mental health and addiction support services. In the US, addiction is a protected characteristic, just like mental health problems are. But in the UK, addiction isn’t treated in the same way and individuals are therefore not protected or supported in the same way. 

Additionally, because some of the coping mechanisms are illegal – such as buying illegal drugs – there’s the added label of ‘criminality’ getting thrown into the mix. Add to that the sheer desperation, shame and isolation involved in addiction and you’ve got many people struggling alone and unable to speak out or seek help, and the problem spirals. It really is a debilitating health problem and many people are losing their lives to it, so we need to start seeing that it’s not the individual who we should be angry at, but more the circumstances endured that have led to or increased their pain – whether that be past trauma, stigma, isolation or lack of services.

Speaking of root causes, what might these be?

Traumatic experiences are prevalent among our community – whether that be childhood trauma, domestic abuse, bullying or even being witness to traumatic events. PTSD combined with alcohol or drug use is common. But other co-existing mental health problems can also drive people to seek pain relief through substances. Social issues, family problems, poverty and poor self-esteem all have a role to play, too – not forgetting physical pain as well, which can sometimes lead to drug dependencies.

The issue of criminality is also not entirely based around lifestyle ‘choices’, but circumstances. For example, some individuals may be able to speak to their GP and be prescribed increasing amounts of pain relief or anti-anxiety medication. Alternatively, a person who struggles to articulate how or what they are feeling may seek relief in street drugs, as these are more easily available to them. The core problem is the same, the behaviour and coping mechanisms are the same, it’s just the way in which the substance is accessed that is different.

You’ve recently launched a national service for students – HEART (Higher Education and Recovery Talk). Can you tell us more about this service?

Going to university is an incredibly exciting time. But, for students in recovery, living with family addiction or in active addiction themselves, it can also be an incredibly daunting and challenging time. Moving away from home for the first time and having to make new connections can be a struggle, especially when so much of university life seems to revolve around alcohol.

There are currently only around 10 sober societies and only two campus recovery programmes in the UK, whereas in the US, there are hundreds. We actually have a campus recovery co-ordinator based on site at Teesside University to support students in recovery, facilitate peer sessions and signpost them to external support groups. Teesside was the first university in the UK to offer this. The only other university that has a campus recovery programme is Birmingham.

We want to encourage more universities to make recovery support services, sober spaces and activities more visible. But, in the meantime, we are providing a nationwide online peer support forum through HEART to make sure that no student feels alone in their recovery.

How can we support the social enterprises you have with Recovery Connections?

Fork in the Road is a great café and restaurant, providing employment opportunities for people in recovery as well as a great menu and a safe, sober space. Upstairs, we also have a bookable licensed venue called 131, and our catering offer is available in the venue as well as out on the road for events in the local area. We’d love to welcome more people into the café and venue, as we’re so proud of what we’ve built and the chef serves up some pretty amazing meals!

Bloom Florists is right next door, where we have an expert florist working alongside and training people in recovery. The florists deliver all around the country, so no matter where you’re based you can support it with an order for a special occasion, or perhaps even a flower subscription or dried flower bouquet.

These enterprises all provide us with extra income to go back into our services, employment opportunities, training and safe spaces.

What are your plans for Recovery Connections in 2022 and beyond?

Our future plans involve growing the social enterprise aspect of the organisation. Recovery isn’t just about our current physical or mental health, it’s about social happiness and independence, safety and security. So, being able to create opportunities for people wanting to get their lives back on track, stay well and thrive is so important.

I’m also keen to see collegiate recovery grow across the UK through new campus recovery programmes. It’s not something that we need to necessarily deliver ourselves as a charity but – along with our team at Recovery Connections, as well as our brilliant ambassadors and volunteers – we hope that we can inspire and encourage other organisations and higher education institutions to launch or grow their recovery offer.

To find out more about the services and support Recovery Connections offer or how you can help, visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram

Are you a student looking to access HEART and the support available? Visit their website. 

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