"Psychology for Change was intense. I had to really open up as a person. It gave me a lot of insight into myself and increased my confidence because it was challenging work."

Psychology for Change graduate, Chris, explains how he developed his training and experience to land a job in the substance misuse field. Patience and persistence is needed if you are looking to find work in the sector.

How did you start gaining experience in the substance misuse field?
“As a resident of Acorn House, part of the Spitalfields Crypt Trust (SCT), I was encouraged to get involved with activities at the Hanbury Centre, which is how I found out about Foundation for Change and the Psychology for Change (PfC) course. I got funding from Hackney to do the 12-week course and ended up getting a placement at Lifeline as a recovery champion for 2 days a week. I did that for a year, alongside a BTEC in college for 3 days a week.

What did doing PfC teach you about yourself?
PfC was intense. I had to really open up as a person. It gave me a lot of insight into myself and increased my confidence because it was challenging work. I got a lot of encouragement from my tutor Liz, particularly about widening my voluntary training and experience with other agencies to continue to develop my skills.

How did you continue your development after completing the course?
Liz helped me get a placement at Addaction after working at Lifeline for a year, where I got to do my Level 3 qualification and access a lot more training. I was using computers for my college work so I wasn’t too afraid of them when I started to learn how to use Nebula, the case management software used for storing client case histories and protecting confidentiality – essential for a support worker.

Despite all this, jobs in the sector seemed to be looking for paid as well as voluntary hands-on experience. I registered with the agency Austin Dean and was offered a part-time paid role at a day Centre for people with disabilities in Leytonstone. Again, it was challenging work, accompanying people who needed day to day care on appointments or special trips. I did that for 16 hours a week for 6 months.

Were there any other obstacles you had to overcome to finding work?
By this point I had moved out of Acorn House and was living in supported housing. I asked Laura, the progression worker at SCT, for some help with my CV so that I could register with more recruitment agencies as a support worker. As soon as I did I had loads of enquiries, but support work is a very broad field. Paid employment positions in the substance misuse sector still seemed to be looking for previous paid experience, as well as 3 – 5 years sobriety/clean time. It was really thanks to my existing connection with the Hanbury Project that I eventually had the chance to gain some paid work experience when a couple of openings for group facilitators appeared there.

What else have you learnt about yourself since doing the course?
The tools and theory we studied on PfC have helped me massively in this role. I am able to set and maintain boundaries, to be tolerant and non-judgemental when working with different – sometimes difficult – clients, and be able to listen and give honest feedback. I also learnt not to offer advice outside of my experience and be able to admit when I don’t know something or need more help or expertise. You have to be very self aware to do this job, and PfC allowed me to develop that capacity. I also have an understanding of the course material and how to facilitate a group session, which comes in handy day to day.

I’ve had to handle some difficult situations, for example upholding the abstinence boundary with a person who was struggling in order to safeguard the wellbeing of the group. It’s hard when you sympathize with someone having a slip, but we need to respect those boundaries. For us it is a two month abstinence policy in order to be able to attend groups.

If you were giving advice to someone trying to start a career in substance misuse work, what would you suggest?
I would say gain a wide range of voluntary experience in different agencies to find out if you really want to do it. Patience and keeping contacts and connections in the field is vital. One great tip I received and still use was keeping a daily journal at work. It helps you get to know the people you are working with day in day out – even if it is just writing down the names of new faces who come in so that the next time you meet them you can greet them with a welcoming smile.

Support more people like Chris* by making a donation to us.

*for this interview, the graduate's name and identity has been changed to protect anonymity.