If it takes a village to raise a child then it takes a community to help people with complex issues turn their lives around.

Social action, where everyone comes together to share their expertise, can transform lives by tackling mental health or addiction problems, disability, poverty, or housing.

And it is very much needed by the thousands of people in Britain who struggle on a daily basis with multiple challenges, yet often do not get the support necessary.   

Complex needs and a dual diagnosis

This is the clear and loud message from evidence gathered by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Complex Needs and Dual Diagnosis that I chair jointly with Luciana Berger MP.

More than 40 charities and other organisations submitted examples of social action in practice for our report People Powered Recovery.

We have been astounded and encouraged by the sheer range of examples up and down the country of how ‘people power’ is making a difference.

From peer-mentoring programmes to schemes using the lived experience of volunteers, these projects demonstrate how these approaches can improve outcomes, prevent crisis, support recovery and develop more responsive services for people with complex needs.

The power of lived-experience

At the Recovery Republic for example in Heywood, Greater Manchester, volunteers run a wellbeing centre dedicated to supporting anyone with a dual diagnosis through their recovery.

Known as ‘citizens’, staff include people who themselves have lived through the experience and come out the other side.

The centre is linked to primary care to the GP practice of its founder Dr Michael Taylor who describes recovery from addiction as ‘a long journey not supported by statutory services.’

By filling the gaps left by the time-limited NHS, Recovery Republic and schemes like this benefit those who come seeking help for every one of their needs.

They also benefit the volunteers who provide that help, and the organisation they are working with.

Often, small services like these though can be swallowed up by a larger health and social care provider when it wins a contract. But initiatives like Recovery Republic have local knowledge that is invaluable.

With this in mind, Turning Point which runs the contract across Rochdale and Oldham has ensured one of its workers is embedded at the wellbeing centre.

That way, we learn about the specific needs of the local community and grow our knowledge.

Peer-led services 

The message from those who submitted evidence was that recovery is a long-term process.

This is where peer-led services can provide proof that it is possible to travel the distance and reach your goal at the end.

Build on Belief uses peer mentors to provide socially based services so that people in recovery have something to do to fill their time and somewhere to go during what can be a lonely and difficult experience.

The London-based organisation uses volunteers who have been service users themselves and know how hard it is to overcome addiction issues.

A real strength of peer mentoring is that people with complex needs often feel more comfortable talking to them. They feel less judged by someone who has gone through a similar experience to theirs. This is borne out by evidence- clients with a peer mentor can average five weeks longer on a programme than those without, according to one programme that submitted evidence for our report.   

It can also get people back into paid employment.

One staff member at Build on Belief started out as a volunteer following a 30-year history of crack cocaine and heroin use, more than 500 criminal convictions, as well as experience of severe depression and homelessness.

Now, she is helping to develop a new service.

What social action isn't 

What is important to point out is that social action is not a response to budget cuts.

'Social action is about providing services that focus on all the issues affecting an individual, not just one in isolation'

It is not about using unpaid volunteers in place of salaried staff to paper over cracks in the system.

Social action is about providing services that focus on all the issues affecting an individual, not just one in isolation.

Involving people in designing services in the first place helps to make people feel valued and respected, and can drive up quality by improving staff knowledge.

We need proper resources

However, this approach inevitably comes with challenges.

Proper resources are needed if volunteering, peer support and peer-led groups, and community-led service design are to play a more central role in services.

Leadership and support at a senior level is required too, and a commitment from commissioners such as encouraging providers to incorporate social action in tender requirements.

 When people fall through the gaps between services, the consequences for people with complex needs or a dual diagnosis can be devastating.

As our report highlights, social action offers real possibilities now and for the future, not just for those needing help but for everyone involved. And that is worth investing in.

We source and share compassionate responses to mental health needs. Empower Mental Health Today to continue this work.

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