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These blogs demonstrate how the team have adapted to the challenges of Coronavirus to support service users to continue to engage and to offer much needed support during difficult times. Below you can read about the virtual mutual aid groups that were set up during lockdown from the perspective of a member of staff, a volunteer, and a service user. These groups have continued to run even after some of the restrictions have eased due to their success and the fact that the numbers of service users that the Recovery Near You team can see in person due to social distancing measures.

Virtual mutual aid groups

A staff perspective 

In May 2020 we set up virtual mutual aid groups as we recognised that the loss of face to face provision could have a detrimental effect on service user recovery, and also deprive our volunteers of meaningful activity which in turn supports their own recovery journey.

Recovery Near You and SUIT (Service User Involvement Team) worked together to implement the successful SMART Group format as a virtual group, and to implement the Women’s Group as a virtual group. SMART stands for Self Management and Recovery Training, and is a recovery programme which uses cognitive behaviour therapy and motivational tools and techniques.

It was intended that these groups would be led by volunteers in the longer term, but it was recognised that those volunteers would need support for the first few weeks, both logistically, and in managing attendees’ behaviour and welfare in what was a brand new delivery model.

Specific volunteers who had expressed an interest in facilitating the groups were assigned to the groups and were prepped by the Volunteer Coordinator. Access to the groups was secure and by referral and subsequent invite to email addresses only. We wanted to ensure that the initial numbers were manageable and that all attendees felt safe and secure whilst in their ‘shared space’. We set up the attendance sheets, gathered referrals from the Recovery Team within our service, and collated contact information to be sent to SUIT for invites to be sent out.

We went live with the Women’s Group on 19 May 2020 and with the SMART Group on 21 May 2020. Both groups take place on a weekly basis and were initially open to Recovery Team referrals only; attendance for the SMART Group in particular built quickly, with referrals coming in rapidly, and we were also getting requests from other teams within the wider Recovery Near You service who wanted to make referrals to this group.

After 3 weeks the Support Workers had successfully stepped back and volunteers were confidently facilitating both groups in their own right. Due to the success of the SMART Group one of the volunteer facilitators asked to start a second weekly group which, given the demand, was what was needed. After discussion a second group was added which also takes place on a weekly basis and this is open to referrals from across the service, and the Women’s Group also started to take referrals from across the service. The new SMART Group started on 22 June 2020 and again it really quickly took off.

The feedback both from volunteers running the groups and the attendees has been really positive. It was a space to offer structured support, and share useful skills and alternative activities.

We have also put in place staff led virtual group sessions, including virtual relaxation sessions, a weekly virtual family support group, a virtual group called Onwards and Upwards which is specifically to support and prepare service users to leave the service safely and confidently.

A volunteer perspective

Before lockdown I was volunteering for both SUIT and Recovery Near You. I would facilitate SMART Groups and a Women’s Group, and work from the SUIT office, supporting service users with anything from benefit enquiries, to training opportunities and job searches. Every day was different and busy, I had structure and I thrived on helping people from the local community overcome addiction and move forward in their lives.

When lockdown was announced I felt panicked and lost. The service users would no longer be able to get the support we offered. There would be no face to face appointments or group sessions. I too would lose the sense of working within a team. My mind was full of questions and my Monday to Friday routine had been abruptly stopped.

The same week lockdown was announced, a volunteer WhatsApp group was set up so the volunteers and staff could have little daily chats. I felt very supported by our Volunteer Coordinator who called each week for a catch up and to see how I was getting on, and how I was keeping busy. He was also on hand to answer any questions I had. The support that I received has helped me through what could have been an extremely difficult and lonely time, with volunteer video calls organised and quizzes taking place every other week. They became the highlight of my week and seeing the other volunteers instantly lifted my spirits.

Online SMART and Women’s Group Zoom meetings were set up in May and I also attended a Zoom training session run by WVSC (Wolverhampton Voluntary Sector Council). Seeing the service users and getting back to facilitating groups was amazing. There was a real sense of community within the group sessions and everyone continually worked together to problem solve and move forward.

Having two SMART Groups running each week offers the service users some structure. The Volunteer Coordinator made attending the groups simple – he sent out an email the day before the group, with the time and a link to join the meeting.

Although it isn’t the same as face to face groups it comes in at a close second. Running the Women’s Group is great. It’s a time where once a week, the women service users can get together virtually, put their addiction and problems to the back of their mind, and just have a laugh. Real friendships have been made through the group.

Over the Summer I was able to go back into the SUIT office, and although there are still restrictions, we are doing as much as we can. It has been great to catch up with our regular service users and they have been extremely grateful to receive the calls.

A service user perspective

I was referred to SUIT and Recovery Near You before lockdown after over 20 years of alcohol abuse.

During lockdown I received weekly calls to check I was ok, and I started attending the weekly Zoom Women’s Group sessions. I always look forward to seeing the girls – we see how each other are, talk about any problems, share advice and do a quiz that always ends up in hysterics and puts you in a good mood for the rest of the day. It also makes it more comfortable over Zoom when you find it hard to talk to people.

We also have a Zoom coffee morning where a group of us who are all ages have a good catch-up, a quiz and share tips on gardening, hobbies, cooking. And that led one of the volunteers to set up a Zoom where on a Tuesday she texts us a list of ingredients and then on a Friday we all cook together. It’s really good and takes your mind off things.

Recovery Near You also set up a Zoom where we would do relaxation and mindfulness, and every Friday the group all meet up on Zoom to talk about our steps to recovery. We have got to know each other more, talked all about our problems and worries, advised each other, and shared our happy days. It’s more of a sense of family which makes our journey more special during a very concerning time. When we started having our meetings through Zoom I started opening up which I needed to do – things started to unravel which had been locked away. Through ALL their help I’m forever grateful I got my happy ending