DDN May2021 May 2021 | Page 6



A stressful year is giving rise to a fresh approach to mental health at Phoenix Futures , as DDN reports
‘ People in treatment are keen to say they ’ re ok , but a significant amount of people have really struggled over the past year ,’ says Phoenix Futures ’ chief executive Karen Biggs of more than 12 months in lockdown .


residential services are where we ’ ve traditionally seen those with the most complex needs and where they will have an opportunity to engage with the appropriate medical help and psychological support ,’ she says . So Phoenix made two key decisions , and the first was to stay open throughout , ‘ because I knew the need was out there and if there was ever a time people needed access to rehabs it was during the pandemic .’
The second key decision was that ‘ we were not going to take our foot off the pedal in our mental health work ’. There were two important strands to this – a refresh of clinical interventions , and a specific look at what else they could be doing to make sure people could access the right interventions at the right time .
‘ People with substance misuse and mental health conditions get passed from pillar to post , struggling to engage with substance misuse services and then mental health services at the same time ,’ she says . With the expertise of the team ’ s psychologist and senior mental health nurse , the plan was to develop the team ’ s skills to ‘ hold ’ people and start to address their issues while they were in treatment – then to improve links with other services , ‘ so there ’ s a really good pathway of support when they move out ’.
Nothing has stalled over the past year – quite the opposite . Biggs is ‘ terrified ’ of what ’ s to come on drugrelated death statistics as ‘ there ’ s so much we don ’ t know about the experience of people in treatment
over the last year ’. Add to that the stigma , not just in the media but in the ‘ everyday decisions made by professionals in the healthcare system ’, and there is much to do . ‘ Stigma is preventing people from accessing help ,’ she says . ‘ It prevents people from accessing substance misuse services and put together with a mental health condition it ’ s so hard . We need to speak out about it and support health professionals to understand the impact of their decisions .’
' There ’ s so much we don ’ t know about the experience of people in treatment over the last year ’
As the pandemic escalated , Biggs was acutely aware that her staff had support needs of their own , whether out on the frontline or adapting to the challenges of virtual support from home . Half of Phoenix ’ s staff continued to work face-to-face in the pandemic , in residential and housing services , and there was ‘ a lot of fear ’ to begin with , facing risk , adjusting to new protocols to keep everyone safe , and fighting for PPE , testing and access to the vaccine . ( A particular challenge , says Biggs , as while residential rehabs are registered
care homes , they were not viewed as priority .)
The decision to stay open was a ‘ massive ask ’ of team members and redoubled her commitment to staff welfare . She recognised that ‘ there was a very real need for the staff to decompress ’, particularly without the usual opportunities to get together , laugh , cry , hug , and share the load , so a muchvalued wellbeing programme was introduced and has been extended indefinitely . ‘ We have to continue to recognise that staff have been going into work and risking their lives every day ,’ she says .
Phoenix has also taken the opportunity to learn from the pandemic by beginning a research partnership with Liverpool John Moores University . The aim is to study the impact of COVID on residential rehabs through surveying staff and service users , and results will be interpreted in June and fed into the organisation ’ s review of practice .
The other area for development – and something Biggs feels hopeful about – is the prospect of addiction services becoming part of the wider health and social care sector , post PHE restructure . ‘ The pathways into and out of addiction services and how we are able to support alongside our health and social care partners should be made easier ,’ she said . But she adds a strong note of caution : that we must not allow the specialism of addiction to get lost ‘ within the broader health and social care tent ’ – a real risk . ‘ We ’ ve got to be braver and more confident as a sector in our communication on it ,’ she says . DDN