Living well in an addicted society
I've attended many conferences in my life, but this one was head and shoulders above most of them. It was called Equipping the Church in an Addictive Society and hosted by Gweini, the umbrella body for the Christian voluntary sector in Wales.
I'd read the programme notes and prepared myself for a series of technical presentations from a number of expert speakers. But I was wrong. As soon as I entered the hall in Swansea's City Temple I realised this would be different. The presentations were very good but the audience comprised many people who had first hand knowledge of the destructive power of addiction. Present were recovering addicts and also others who had shared their lives trying to help people with addiction. This would not be an exercise in academic neutrality but analysis that seared the heart.
The opening speaker was Phil Chick who gave an overview of addiction in Wales from the perspective of the Welsh Government. In April this year, the National Assembly of Wales published a report called Substance misuse and treatment services in Wales. It says that men account for the majority of alcohol and drug referrals in the nation and the rate of underage drinking remains worryingly high. Whilst the number of underage drinkers has decreased since its peak in 1996, the rate in Wales remains one of the highest in Europe and North America. The number of exclusions from schools in Wales (both permanent and fixed term) resulting from substance misuse increased by 2 per cent between 2009 and 2011.
According to the 2011 Welsh Health Survey, around two out of five adults reported drinking above the recommended guidelines on at least one day in the past week, including around a quarter who reported binge drinking. Drinking above guidelines was more common amongst men, and was less common amongst older people.
However there is some positive news. There were a total of 459 alcohol related deaths in Wales in 2011 according to the Office for National Statistics, representing a 7.1 per cent decrease from 2010. Of these deaths, 62.5 per cent were men, 37.5 per cent were women. In addition between 2007 and 2011 there has been an overall decrease of 8.4 per cent in hospital admissions with alcohol specific primary diagnosis in Wales.
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Then came the avalanche of powerful stories. Alan Andrews of Chooselife Cymru talked about current trends in drug and alcohol abuse, lacing his presentation with his own story of chronic addiction and habitual imprisonment. The turning point came when he encountered Christ during a stretch in Dartmoor prison and found a transforming power to kick his habits and start afresh.
Patrick Prosser was the event's main speaker. As the former CEO and now Training Advisor of Life for the World Trust, he has worked in this field for over 30 years. His two messages offered an overview of the problems of addiction and the possibilities of recovery available through personal faith and the community of a loving church.
Up stepped Billy. A man shuffled to the front and began to speak; slowly, sometimes incoherently, narrating a tale of abuse. I initially thought this was one of the delegates telling us his tale but a glance at the programme informed me that this was Paul Jones performing a short one act play about a man called Billy. He told and showed a story of unfolding family trauma and abusive relationships. We saw a man experimenting with alcohol, cannabis, cocaine and then dying of a heroin overdose. It was meant to disturb and it certainly did. Although fictional, Billy's story could probably be repeated in most of Britain's communities.
This conference about addiction was deeply sobering. Against a backdrop of pain and illness it was inspiring to see many churches and other organisations helping to bring light into dark patterns.