“People don’t realise the extent of the link between mental health and alcohol use” – volunteers share their stories for Alcohol Awareness Week
Volunteers from a Greater Manchester training programme which empowers communities to take control of their alcohol consumption have been sharing their thoughts on alcohol and mental health – the theme for this year’s Alcohol Awareness Week.
Funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the Communities in Charge of Alcohol (CICA) programme that is being evaluated by the University of Salford, trains volunteer ‘alcohol health champions’ to help family, friends and colleagues rethink their drinking habits, with a view to reducing the amount of harmful drinking across Greater Manchester.
Alcohol Health Trainer and Volunteer Co-ordinator Billy Durkin from The Lifestyle Service, Bury, who recruits, trains and supports the volunteers, says: “There is a reoccurring link between alcohol use and poor mental health. Though the conversations that volunteers have with individuals can be brief, the impact can be massive for that individual. For the champions too, there is a real sense of satisfaction as they support someone to talk about their alcohol consumption and/or their mental wellbeing.”
CICA volunteers attend a two-day training programme, before becoming Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) Level 2 accredited Alcohol Health Champions. Once trained, participants can use their knowledge and skills to offer simple, easy to follow advice to family, friends and the wider community. During the first lockdown in March, some Alcohol Health Champions even helped create an animation about the work they do, to share the project more widely with others.
For Billy, the training is crucial in supporting the volunteers in their journey to help others. “The training programme is demanding, especially for individuals who may not have been in any formal education for decades. Volunteers support each other and build lasting relationships – you see their confidence and self-esteem grow. There is a real sense of achievement and satisfaction at achieving the RSPH Level 2 Award.”
Michael has been an Alcohol Health Champion for three years, since meeting Billy, who introduced him to the programme. He explains: “I wanted to become an Alcohol Health Champion because it was a chance to help others and do my best to support people in making a change in their lives.
“Being part of the programme has made me feel that I am empowering others to understand the issues and see what help is available. My involvement in CICA has helped me to feel a sense of doing something worthwhile and having a purpose within life. I can only hope that I have helped others with their mental health and wellbeing too.”
Janis (pictured), like Michael, has been a volunteer since 2017. She joined following personal experience of the damage caused by alcohol misuse. “My husband has had alcohol problems, so I find the work really rewarding as I know the difference it will make to people.
“People don’t realise the extent of the link between mental health and alcohol use – something I have learned about through my own experience. I don’t want other people to go through what we went through as a family.”
Professor Penny Cook, Principal Investigator on the CICA evaluation says: “During lockdown we have seen lots of examples of how communities are coming together to help each other. A programme like CICA shows that with some training and support, volunteers can develop skills that make them valuable assets in their community to help tackle harm from alcohol and improve wellbeing.”
On the importance of this year’s mental health theme for Alcohol Awareness Week, Billy said: “We do find that some individuals are drinking alcohol as a way of coping with their poor mental health. Many people seem unaware of the link between alcohol and mental health, and the impact alcohol can have on their mental health. This year’s campaign linking alcohol and mental health can really make a difference and highlight the links and risks.”
Liz Burns, Programme Lead in Mental Health Nursing and Lead Researcher for CICA at the University of Salford, said: “For many people, this has been a really difficult year, and the theme of alcohol and mental health in this year’s Alcohol Awareness Week is so important. Throughout the CICA project we have seen the difference that our volunteers can make to the mental health and wellbeing of those around them, as well as the positive benefits they gain themselves from being involved in the programme.”
Kiran Kenth, Director of National and Regional programmes, RSPH said: "We continue to be excited about the opportunities CICA offers to communities both to get involved in licensing decision-making and also in helping friends and families to become more aware of how alcohol can affect their physical and mental health. It is great news that we are getting interest from other parts of the country as people recognise the potential impact of this really engaging health champion's programme."
Dr Jan Hopkins, Programme Manager, Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, said: “Greater Manchester Directors of Public Health led by Professor Kate Ardern, Director of Public Health for Wigan, supported the cascade of CICA across the city-region. We know that community-led initiatives are an integral part of improving population health and are grateful to the many Alcohol Health Champions who have given their time and shared their experiences to make this initiative a success. It is uplifting to hear about the personal journey made by many of them. It is also encouraging to witness how several localities in Greater Manchester have adopted this model and embedded it as business as usual.”
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