30 June 2022
In our new content series ‘Partner Profile’, we speak with organisations working in the health of people who use drugs, addiction, harm reduction, and hepatitis C. This month, we speak with Rob Calder, head of communications at the Society for the Study of Addiction (SSA), based in the UK.
With 10 years’ experience working in drug treatment services and research settings before moving to the SSA, Rob talks about what makes addiction an addiction, the importance of evidence-based interventions, and why ideologies could get in the way of progression.
What is the Society for the Study of Addiction (SSA) and what do you do?
The SSA’s main aim is to promote the scientific understanding of addiction. There’s an awful lot of misunderstanding about addiction and about the people who experience it. What the SSA aims to do is to feed research and evidence-based understandings of treatment and policy into the conversation. We have two SSA-owned journals (Addiction and Addiction Biology), but where we’re different is that the income generated from those journals is used to support early career researchers, fellowships, professor schemes, engagement grants, awards, impact prizes and more.
What type of addictions does the SSA focus on? And how do you decide what ‘counts’ as an addiction?
There’s an ongoing conversation within the sector about what qualifies as an addiction. It’s such a fascinating debate.
Take ‘smartphone addiction’ as an example. Lots of people understand that, and it has the potential to increase the understanding of addiction because it’s something everyone can relate to. But it also has the potential to help people misunderstand addiction. If people are trying to compare the inability to put their phone down with someone else’s alcohol or illicit drug use, and the physical dependency and harms these bring, they’re not comparable. You don’t get a sense of one from the other.
The SSA supports a range of addictions and we’re constantly reviewing what falls under this remit. For example, as well as focusing on drugs and alcohol, we recently funded a series of events about gambling addiction. I was lucky enough to attend the most recent one face-to-face and it was eye-opening.
Why should people care about populations who are experiencing addiction?
It’s difficult to find a more vulnerable, marginalised and stigmatised population. And that goes across the board. Historically, addiction has been seen as everything from a moral failing to worse, but there’s a much more nuanced understanding of addiction and its pre-cursors, causes, risk factors and outcomes now. It’s really important that this continues.
How can we help populations experiencing addiction?
I worked for over 10 years in addiction treatment services, working with people who used drugs, people experiencing homelessness, people selling sex, people injecting in public places, and people who were really, really in crisis. For many this involved medical, physical, mental health, social, financial issues and more. Personally, I think it’s an obligation of society to help people who are in these kinds of crises where we can.
But we need to help in a way that is based on the evidence because there is a long history of well-meaning – but ultimately quite destructive – interventions for vulnerable populations, and people who use drugs specifically.
Many people are affected every year by addiction in one way or another, and it’s important they receive the right, evidence-based support. We also need to make sure that the evidence and research gets out there and is accessible.
You’ve worked in the addiction field for a long time. What’s changed?
In the UK there have been fluctuations in funding which have had an impact on the treatment people can access. There has also been a growth of the idea of a ‘recovery agenda’ where we saw a lot more education, training and employment support services in treatment. And I know that recovery can be quite contentious, but the notion that we’re not just trying to kind of cure ‘bad things’, but we’re trying to help people lead the life that they want to. That was actually quite a cultural change.
But at the same time, there have been things that haven’t changed.
One of my frustrations is that we still don’t have across the board professionalisation in substance misuse services. Many services still have a voluntary feel to them. The workforce is amazing, and contains some of the most committed, intelligent and effective people I’ve ever met; but they often don’t get the support and the training that they deserve and that a professionalised career plan would bring.
What’s one of the biggest challenges facing the addictions field at the moment?
Unfortunately, I think we’re still having the same arguments about harm reduction and abstinence that we were having 15 years ago (and beyond). I can sometimes find it a bit disheartening when those arguments haven’t moved on and end up being about ideologies to the exclusion of the evidence base. And I think the important thing is to look at the evidence.
For example, rather than label something as ‘harm reduction’ or ‘recovery’, or ‘abstinence’, we just say, ‘this is an intervention, does it work?’. We should ask, is it effective? Who is it effective for? And if you’ve got some yesses in those answers, then the question becomes why aren’t we delivering it? Rather than whether it aligns with a particular ideology or approach.
What are some of your favourite moments or projects that the SSA has funded?
It’s really varied, but one we’ve recently been funding is a model from Iceland helping prevent young people in Dundee from engaging in drinking, drug use, and smoking. It’s not on a specific addiction but it’s related to multiple addictions. It’s about prevention, and this is important. We’re also funding an amazing project (SABAA) bringing together experts to explore the evidence on autism and addiction.
In terms of SSA-owned events, nothing beats the annual conference. The big names in addiction from the UK and beyond come together and talk about the latest and most important innovation in research. That’s always a proud moment to be a part of.
You have a podcast too, right? Tell us about that.
The SSA funds between six and eight PhD students at any one time. And I had the joy of working with them to develop a podcast, which was about their experiences of doing a PhD focused on addiction. It’s called PhD: Addicted to Research. We also have an SSA podcast which is back under development at the moment, and Addiction Audio from Addiction journal, where I talk to people about their research.
What’s next for the SSA?
At the moment we’re focusing on the almost unbearable excitement of face-to-face, in-person conferences again! Our next conference is in November in Bristol in the UK. We’ve also got quite a few plans at the moment around training programmes for early career researchers in recording and editing podcasts, writing blogs and developing good science communication skills.