Chatting with Professor Richard Velleman: Part one Working with children and families affected by substance use

two cups of coffee on a table

In this two-part blog series, Hazel @ Team DRNS shares some highlights of her conversation with Professor Richard Velleman. Professor Velleman is Emeritus Professor of Mental Health Research at the University of Bath, and co-director of the Addictions Research Group at Sangath – a health and research NGO in India. He is also one of the founders of AFINet – the Addiction and the Family International Network.

In this first blog, Professor Velleman talks about the fascination and challenges of working in the field.

What fascinates you about working in the substance use field?

“Addiction is a fascinating area, which does not allow any one discipline or any one approach to dominate. You can approach addiction from the biochemical, and the genetic level, all the way through to policy and politics and economics levels, and everything in between, and they’re all really interesting. Even the whole philosophical discussions about what we actually mean by addiction? What does it mean when people feel they can’t control their behaviour? How is it different to obsessive-compulsive behaviour?”

What brought you to the field of families affected by addiction?

“I realised that lots of people spend a lot of time talking about addiction, but what about the impact that is has on people who are close to people with addictions? My original PhD was about what happens to the children of people with drinking problems when they grow up. I did a lot of research on that with Professor Jim Orford after I qualified, and wrote a book “Risk and Resilience”, and published a lot of papers about that area. Then it expanded beyond that. Jim’s own PhD was on the impact on wives of people with alcohol problems. He found that the quality of the relationship with the wife had an impact on the success of treatment. So, with my interest in children and the long-term impact on children, and Jim’s interest in wives, we then got interested in the family generally.”

The 5-Step Method is a way of working with families affected by Addiction, tell me how that came about?

“Jim and I started doing [research on the impacts of substance use on the family] across the world. One of the things that came over most strikingly was that we found very, very similar findings everywhere across the world about the impact living with someone with serious alcohol, drug and gambling problems has on them. One of the great similarities was everybody saying, “we got no help, we have no one to talk to. It was very difficult. I feel completely alone in this. You’re the first person I’ve ever talked to about this”. We realised this was because people didn’t normally volunteer the information to other people. One of the impacts is to feel very ashamed, and very guilty, that maybe it’s your fault and you keep family problems to yourself. We also realised it was because helping professionals didn’t ask. Then we realised that one of the reasons professionals didn’t ask, is that if you ask and you find out there’s a problem, you have to do something about it. If you don’t know what to do about it, then you don’t ask the question in the first place. So, we developed a method on intervention called the “5-Step Method”, which we tested out in various settings. We found that, of course, it doesn’t alleviate all the problems. If you’ve got somebody with a son with a serious drug problem, at the end of doing the 5-Step Method, you’ve still got a son with a serious drug problem, but it was a very effective way of family members feeling heard and feeling that they could regain some sense of control over what was going on in their lives.”

What for you are the key challenges facing the field?

“A key challenge for the field is how we can mainstream the plight of affected family members and what is needed, in order to find help for them. One common idea is “if we can only get better services for people with alcohol, drugs, and gambling problems, we wouldn’t have to worry about the families because it would be sorted”. However, all the research across the world shows that the treatment gap is so massive that there is no way we are ever going to get enough services to treat all the people with alcohol, drug and gambling problems, even if those people realise that they’ve got problems. We have to think about how we mainstream help for affected family members to enable them to deal with this really serious and significant problem. There’s lots of reasons for doing that but one of the key ones is that if you don’t, then you are increasing family breakdown at a time when our societies across the world can’t really afford any more increase in family breakdown.”

What would you say to people thinking about working in this field?

“You’re mixing together two fascinating areas of research and culture; addiction on the one hand, with all this massive set of disciplines, and then the family and what it actually means and how it’s structured on the other hand. It’s a lifelong area of work. I want to have the new generation coming up. I want to help them develop the long-standing interest in this area that I have developed, and to maintain it. I want to be able to hand over the baton to people”.

In the second blog, Richard will discuss his involvement with Addiction and the Family International Network (AFINet), their recent conference, and their next one in September 2022.

If you want to find out more about the work being done by Professor Velleman and his colleagues across the world, visit the AFINet website which contains access to past and upcoming webinars, and lots of other useful information.

The 2022 AFINet Conference will take place on 29th-30th September 2022. If you would like to submit an abstract to present at the conference, or would like tickets to attend, keep your eye on the AFINet website for updates or look out for news in the DRNS newsletter.



Categories: News & BlogPublished On: March 24, 2022

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