The Power of Connection

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A blog from Kirsty, who works with our AD:EPT service in Magaberry Prison, reflecting on the past year living and working with Covid.

In late March 2020, to reduce the footfall within the prison estate, the majority of voluntary agencies who were providing support to people in custody had to leave the prison and work from home. Although Start360 were among those that had to temporarily stand down from the service they provide, we were given a fancy new purple uniform and re-deployed to work in Healthcare.

We supported Healthcare with tasks such as:

· telephone and webcam appointments with GPs, Physios, etc,

· assisting nursing staff to provide Opiate Substitution Therapy (OST)

· collecting medical complaints and triage forms

· relaxation/meditation groups

· creating and distributing distraction/therapeutic packs

· fantasy football, creative writing competitions, quizzes, etc.

· attending multi-disciplinary meetings

· key working clients who are receiving OST

Although we were redeployed, we were still able to offer check-ins, pre-release and naloxone training to prisoners through the umbrella of our partners in the South Eastern Trust. It has been a big change and has involved many days of working late. However, continuing to go to our place of work has meant that we have been able to keep a tiny bit of normality during a very abnormal time.

The past year has had its challenges, both personally and professionally. What stands out to me is how important it is to stay connected – to our loved ones, our community, our work and even ourselves.

Johann Hari (a journalist from the UK) said, "the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is human connection." This statement had led me to think about those with addiction issues who are currently in custody during this pandemic. Essentially prisoners were already in ‘lockdown’, separated from their loved ones, locked inside most of their day. Just like we had a taste of, not that long ago.

Since the end of March 2020, in-person visits have temporarily ceased. Prisoners are now meeting with family and friends over Zoom. For many, this means having the opportunity to see their pets, grannies, grandads and even loved ones overseas that do not have the means to make the trip to jail to visit. However, for many others, this has caused a lot of sadness, not to have that physical touch or closeness with the people that they love. I think we can all agree that our ‘Zoom dates’ with family and friends are not even a patch on sitting in their company in real life.

Many of you may be familiar with the ‘Rat Park’ experiment, which was a famous study in the 1980s, that set about to understand addiction. Rats were placed in an empty cage on their own and given a choice between water laced with drugs, or pure water - most often, the rats chose the drugs. They eventually became addicted, consuming the drugs repeatedly until they died. Further along in the study, the rats were placed in cages with other rats, toys, tunnels and food, and it was noted that rats in a social situation reacted very differently. When placed in a cage with other rats and social stimulation, they no longer heavily used the drug-laced water.

We as humans crave connection. When we feel disconnected – from our peers, family, community, etc. an addiction (in many forms) may be tempting to fill that void.

Not to sound like a cliché, but this year has been a year of reflection. A time to pause and really look at the bigger picture. I look back on team-building days and exercises designed to bring teams together and strengthen that bond and morale. I can honestly say I have never felt as connected to my team and supported by my colleagues in AD:EPT as I have done during these past few months.

I have no idea what 2021 will look like but I know that we’ll go into it stronger and more connected than we did going into 2020.

I also look forward to the whole of Start360 getting together again, whenever that will be, so that I can catch up and reconnect with everyone again.

I hope you are all well and have a lovely Christmas and New Year.

Kirsty, AD:EPT Case Worker


*If you haven’t already – check out the TedTalk by Johann Hari on YouTube below. His book ‘Chasing the Scream’ is also a very interesting read for those who are interested in addiction and the war on drugs.

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