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Academic look at addictions

Douglas Blane reports on the first undergraduate university course for people working with drug and alcohol misusers.

There are now almost as many ways to tackle drug addiction as there are illegal substances on our streets. Getting the chance to learn about the latest developments in intervention was what motivated John Campbell to enrol on a new, one-year certificate course on drug and alcohol practice at Glasgow University.

"I had been a substance abuse counsellor in South Lanarkshire for four years. But I was aware there were interventions for people with addictions that I didn't know a lot about," he says.

Funded with four colleagues by his employer, and released for one day a week to attend classes, John found himself having to adjust to the demands of an essentially undergraduate-level course.

"It was challenging," he says. "It's 10 years since I've done any formal education. So getting my head round writing an academic essay was a struggle - for most of us. I had a hard time at first."

The new course is run by a Scottish Government-funded partnership known as Scottish Training on Drugs and Alcohol (STRADA). This was formed in 2001 by Glasgow University's department of adult and continuing education (DACE) and UK charity DrugScope, to provide learning opportunities to drug and alcohol services across Scotland.

"It is the first undergraduate university-level course aimed directly at people working with drug and alcohol misusers," says Joy Barlow, head of STRADA.

Short courses and postgraduate programmes did exist, but nothing substantial aimed at practitioners without a degree, seeking to expand and update their knowledge and skills. "It's about equipping them with theoretical knowledge that they can integrate into their practice," explains Alice Russell, tutor.

"We look at theories and models of addiction, drug and alcohol assessment and intervention, government policy and its impact. We explore concepts and we examine the evidence - both in harm reduction, which is the approach taken throughout the UK, and in abstinence-based programmes."

Helping with essay-writing, which can be carried over to writing reports and constructing arguments in the workplace, is an important element of the course, she says.

"That can be a challenge for adults who have been out of formal education for a while. But that's who we work with in DACE. So we give tutorials and a lot of individual support and formative feedback to get them on the right track - especially in the early days."

That was when John Campbell really needed it, he says. "I sat with the tutors and went through my first essay, which got a poor mark, to learn what I wasn't doing right. That built my confidence for the following essays and the exam portfolio. "Three things I had to tackle differently were language (third-person), structure (how to plan and set out an academic argument); and references - I had seven and they were looking for 15 to 20."

In terms of his performance at work and his feelings about it, the course has already had two major effects, John says. It has increased his confidence in the counselling methods he was already using and it has widened his repertoire.

These include cognitive behaviour therapy - the approach John was familiar with - and motivational interviewing. "That's a new technique from the States, which I knew little about. Then there is community reinforcement, which is also an American thing, but seen to be very successful. I have learned that what works can depend on what people believe. If they see addiction as a disease - CBT would say it's a learned behaviour - they often prefer the 12-step approach to recovery used at Alcoholics Anonymous. That has since been adapted to cover other addictions such as gambling, over-eating and drugs."

Personal benefits John has gained, by successfully completing the course, include greatly increased knowledge, a lot of confidence and a taste for academic study, which will now take the form of a four-year Open University degree course. "I'm still young - I can have a social life in my thirties," he laughs.

But the most important benefits are to the people that he and his colleagues serve, John says. "I can now provide a variety of interventions that best suit their needs, rather than what suits my abilities. It's about assessing the needs and the beliefs of an individual and finding the right intervention for that person."

Evidence for the impact of the course on the people who actually matter can already be seen, he says, in the statistics. "We are retaining more people. We are having more positive outcomes."

STRADA is funded by the Scottish Government to provide multidisciplinary training to staff in the drug and alcohol fields throughout Scotland. It is a partnership between Glasgow University's department of adult and continuing education, its centre for drug misuse research and DrugScope.

Student thoughts

Jackie White, early years addictions worker for East Ayrshire Council:

"It was more academic than I expected, although writing the essays wasn't the hardest part. It's an innovative project I work on - dealing with young children from families where there's substance misuse - and I have been involved from the start in researching and writing reports. So, although I didn't have a degree, I did have useful experience when it came to writing essays.

I was surprised by how much we had to cover in the course. I didn't expect to swan through it, but there was an awful lot of research needed for each essay. On top of family life and a full-time job, it was hard to keep it all going. It was challenging. But not overwhelming.

Having successfully completed the course, I have much more confidence now in working in the field, because I have that academic underpinning. You used to think sometimes, 'Why are we doing this?' Now I've got the understanding. I have more confidence in two areas - in performing the tasks, and in being able to pass on to colleagues what it's about and why we do things a certain way.

A number of students, including me, had serious personal issues to deal with during the year, and the level of support and consideration from the staff was fantastic.

It's a really good qualification in itself and may be a stepping-stone for me. I am hoping now to continue with my studies by getting on the postgraduate course next year, which would again be one day a week. The course I've just completed and my five years' experience lets me apply for that. But there's no guarantee. It is very competitive. I have already got the application form, though."

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