How to create an inclusive recovery city – and why it matters

A 'recovery city' must recognise the substantial contributions individuals in recovery can make to society, extending beyond their role in assisting fellow members in their recovery journeys.

By David Best and Dot Smith

If a city has a drink or drug problem, it’s not usually a prominent feature within its tourism literature. Recovery from drink or drug problems, however, is a powerful social contagion that delivers significant value to wider society. It deserves prominence – but stigma continues to overshadow its positive role.

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The Fork in the Road café. (Photo courtesy of Recovery Connection)

Towns and cities are hard-wired to promote alcohol. It plays a key part in the night-time economy, and it features in most aspects of society – from the arts to sporting events, and from business networking to neighbourhood street parties and student nights out. We are wholly accepting of alcohol’s highly visible role in society – so shouldn’t we be as open to visible recovery, too?

In Middlesbrough, UK, recovery from drink and drug problems is visible in many aspects of life. Walk down the town’s high street and you’ll pass The Fork in the Road café, a social enterprise run by a lived experience recovery organisation, Recovery Connections, that offers a range of sober social events and other community-led events that champion visible and accessible recovery.

You might also wander past the charity’s residential rehab or its recovery community centre. You might spot the Recovery Connections coffee bike in the park as staff serve hot drinks to members of the public and chat about recovery. Students will find on-campus peer support at Teesside University and employees with the region’s biggest private employer, PD Ports, are signposted, without judgment or fear, to on-site help to deal with any drug or alcohol problems they might be experiencing. 

This visible recovery activity underpins the town’s commitment to being an inclusive recovery city – part of a network of international partners all collaborating with this shared aim.

What is an inclusive recovery city?

An inclusive recovery city is a place where there are opportunities and options for people to access a diverse range of recovery resources, where they become part of a supportive community but also where they give back, not only to the recovery community but to the city or town more broadly as well as other marginalised communities through voluntary work, social connections, social enterprise small businesses and creating a feeling of hope and connection across the community.

All international partners involved in the inclusive recovery cities network share the fundamental belief that recovery happens out there in the community. It’s an integrated model that challenges stigma, builds communities and creates a highly visible attractive recovery profile. From what we have seen so far, it is fair to say that Middlesbrough is currently ahead of the curve.

But there is some really innovative work taking place around Europe too in Ghent, Dublin and Gothenburg to name just three of the network’s partners, while there is interest in joining from cities in New Zealand, Canada and the US. It’s about having a clear vision of recovery being at the heart of city regeneration, and about sharing and celebrating success. 

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Recovery is every city’s business

Every town or city high street contains messages about 2-4-1 drinks offers or e-cigarette products that play a proactive and visible role in the development of addictive behaviours and illnesses. The in-built stigma surrounding addictions causes isolation and often a loss of jobs and homes. But when somebody succumbs to the harms we perpetuate, far too often there is a tendency to close our eyes and hope the ‘problem’ goes away. Inevitably, unless we make recovery visible, the problem will just get bigger and bigger.

Visible recovery creates a ripple effect, collective efficacy and trust and engagement between citizens that enable communities to thrive from their roots.

This is why we need to overhaul the way in which we deliver ‘recovery services’. We need to move from ‘treating’ patients to a more collaborative approach – from clinics to communities and from professionals to peers. Supporting recovery is fundamentally about partnerships and coalitions. 

The value of lived experience

We all talk about the value of lived experience, but only when commissioners put their money where their mouth is can we genuinely create the environment in which the magic of lived experience can thrive.

In Middlesbrough, the public health team actively commissions lived experience-led initiatives. People in recovery aren’t just people who have been ‘treated’. They have faced trauma, illness, discrimination, loss of relationships, housing and employment, and they have come through the other side.

They are not just people who have happened to fall on bad times, they are people who carry immense strength, self-awareness and hope – they are without doubt the most qualified people to carry the powerful message of recovery. They are accessible and credible to people earlier on in the same journey. That doesn’t mean we don’t need professionals – it just means that recovery doesn’t start and end with clinical detox and psychotherapy.

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The organisation’s bike serves hot drinks to members of the public while staff can talk about recovery. (Photo courtesy of Recovery Connection)

As Mark Adams, director of public health for Middlesbrough and South Tees, said recently at a Recovery Cities event, “Why do we treat people only to send them home to the very conditions that made them unwell in the first place?”

To sustain recovery, connection and support are needed in life more broadly. And we need local authorities, employers, housing providers, education providers, criminal justice workers, cultural organisations and, of course, each other, as fellow citizens, to allow this positive social contagion to manifest and grow.

But this doesn’t just impact others who need help to overcome drug and alcohol problems. According to Life in Recovery research carried out in the UK, 79.4% of people in long-term recovery have volunteered since the beginning of their recovery journey, which is twice as many as the general population who have never had drug-related problems, and 75% of people in long-term recovery are in stable employment. They are giving back to their community, and their experience of isolation and stigma can support other marginalised groups, too.

Responsible for recovery

In promoting the use of alcohol and other addictive activities as not just socially acceptable, but as socially normative, we are playing a visible role in the journey towards addiction. We owe it to our citizens, therefore, to play a visible role in the journey towards recovery.

Visible recovery offers hope and belief that people can and do recover. It shows that people who have been affected by drug and alcohol addiction are not bad people – they are brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, mothers and fathers. They might be your boss at work or your lecturer at university – people in recovery are the general population. And they are some of the most driven, honest and productive people we know.

The recovery assets every city has are genuinely transformative, but if we can’t see them, if we pretend they don’t exist, we are doing our citizens a huge disservice. 

If city leaders are willing to acknowledge, champion and celebrate recovery, they will facilitate infinite benefits for their city and their citizens. 

Nobody should walk the path alone.

[Read more: A new era of harm reduction: Will the US finally embrace safe drug consumption sites?]

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