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The Role of the VCSE Sector in Recovery from Substance Misuse

– Caitlin McFee, Project Lead, Mental Health Sustainability Programme

Please note that the views of the interviewee in this blog post are subjective and do not represent those of the organisation.

This year’s theme for World Mental Health Day was “mental health for all – greater investment, greater access“. What better time, therefore, to talk about an area of treatment that was already under pressure BC (Before-Covid) and is facing only increasing numbers of service users in the short to medium term: substance misuse.

If we focus solely, for the purpose of this blog post, on alcohol dependency, one can easily see where the cracks in the system may begin to form. Public Health England most recently reported that over 580,000 adults required specialist treatment for alcohol dependency from 2017 to 2018, of which a whopping 82% were unable to access it.[1]

Of all people starting treatment during that period, 53% said that they had a mental health need, which was unsupported in 24% of cases.[2] Almost all (99%) people in treatment received some form of structured treatment[3], but only 9% received it in a primary care setting, with 97% receiving only community-based treatment.[4]

The impact of COVID-19 will be significant. Globally, there has reportedly been a 43% increase in the frequency of alcohol use, and a 36% increase in the amount of alcohol consumed.[5] Those with a mental health or neurodevelopmental condition were much more likely to drink more due to increased stress about the pandemic than those without (41% cf. 21%), and twice as likely to report feeling (more) depressed and/or lonely.[6]

With specialist services struggling to cope with the demand, the role of the VCSE sector in providing (often, lifesaving) support is of paramount importance. These providers, like Turning Point, often support quality standards endorsed by NHS England and their services are, for many people, a valuable supplement, if not even a viable alternative, to NHS and state provision. As well as offering helplines and useful information resources, these organisations offer a range of services from urgent childcare, to educational interventions, and legal advice. You can see a range of these organisations on Adfam’s list of useful organisations in the UK.

The statistics speak for themselves, but they cannot speak for those with lived experience. Therefore, we at The Association thought it might be helpful to hear first-hand from Nick Corkill, a recovering alcoholic, now 5 years sober.

Nick, thanks for agreeing to speak with us. Can you tell us where addiction all began for you?

I suppose it’s always been there, but it peaked in 2013. I was very unhappy in my personal and professional life, and because I’d already been drinking for a long time I’d made a lot of mistakes. I had a bank of bad memories, and the only way to get past them was to carry on drinking. It becomes like a medicine, like any drug; it squashes your memories of the things you’ve done wrong, at least for a moment.

How did you finally realise that you needed help? And how did you go about getting it?

I’d been to countless doctors, but hadn’t been able to identify the root cause of my problem. I thought maybe I just needed to cut down the amount I was drinking, but one day I came across a YouTube video by a doctor talking about addiction and depression, and it was then I realised I was a full-blown alcoholic. I ended up paying privately to go to a rehab centre because I wasn’t able to access the treatment that I needed through the NHS.

Can you tell me more about your experience trying to get help through the NHS?

Sure. As I said, I’d seen so many doctors, all of whom seemed to think my problem was just my mental health, prescribed me with some tablets, and sent me on my way – even though they knew how much I was drinking. I know NHS services are very strained, but I felt like I was unhelpable [sic] when I wasn’t offered any treatment by the GP specifically for my drinking problem.

Did you turn to the VCSE sector at all? What role does the sector play in recovery?

The GPs that I saw often gave me pamphlets for MIND charity or similar. The thing is, in the depths of my addiction, I simply didn’t have time to be reaching out to charities; I was too busy drinking. I was one of the lucky ones to be able to go to a private rehab. I think if you couldn’t do that, given how squeezed resources seem to be, you could end up relying heavily on charities or voluntary organisations, at least from my experience.

How do you think COVID-19 would have impacted you had it happened when you were going through addiction?

The thought honestly gives me shivers. The pandemic is like an addict’s perfect excuse to keep drinking. You have to stay in anyway, so you may as well stay in drinking; nobody can see you. It’s the perfect excuse not to do anything or get any help. But honestly, I’d be more worried about the impact of an addict’s behaviour on their household and family, rather than on the addict themselves. It’s a dark, dark place.

How do you ensure you are looking after your mental health now, and how do you remain in recovery?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s all still there; it will always be there. But whenever I experience a euphoric recall about drinking, I remember that I now have so many things I could never have had before, and I would never jeopardise that for ‘a bit of booze’. I’ve always got something to be thankful for.

What would you say to anybody currently suffering with addiction, particularly now during the pandemic?

You’re not alone. Reach out: don’t try and do it on your own. And finally, you’re worth it.

[1] Public Health England, ‘Adult substance misuse treatment statistics 2018 to 2019: report’,

[2] Ibid.

[3] See p.50 for definition of structured treatment. Public Health England, ‘Adult drug and alcohol treatment business definitions’, p.50,

[4] Public Health England, ‘Adult substance misuse treatment statistics 2018 to 2019: report’,

[5] Statistics taken from the Global Drug Survey COVID-19 special with 55,000 global respondents from May to June 2020,

[6] Ibid.