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Damian Holt is an addictions advocate and peer support worker at Mental Health Advocacy and Peer Support (MHAPS), a consumer-led organisation in Christchurch.
The advocacy work, about 80 percent of what he does, usually involves being alongside a person who is experiencing issues with addiction or in early recovery, and making sure their voice is heard and understood when they visit WINZ, attend court, or begin the process of continuing care – wherever they need that sort of support.
“Many people who have experienced addiction have also experienced stigma and discrimination, so there can be massive anxiety for them around dealing with agencies they believe haven’t listened to or cared about them in the past,” Damian says.
“A lot of the time it’s about helping people stay calm, which will get them a much better result than if they start banging their fist on the table.”
Damian also works with the people his clients are visiting, often helping them understand the compulsive nature of addiction and that it’s not a simple case of someone having done something wrong. When things have really broken down between the person and the agency he will often step in as a mediator.
The peer support side of his role involves working one-on-one with people, motivating and helping them with their recovery.
Damian’s own lived experience has equipped him well for both roles. He used cannabis daily for 24 years and he was heavily addicted to using intravenous drugs by the time he was 18. He did this mainly to self-medicate for depression.
“Every now and then somebody sitting in front of me will tell me I don’t know what it’s like to be hanging out, and I can say, ‘Yeah, well actually I do’. And as soon as I explain my experience I see the barriers just come tumbling down. This is so beneficial in the work I do.”
Damian has been a printer most his life, downgrading to a printer’s labourer once in recovery to reduce stress. He had been considering working in addiction for a while. When Damian lost his job in 2010 due to the Canterbury earthquakes, it seemed like an opportunity to do the National Certificate in Alcohol and Drug Studies at Weltec.
After that, he says he “lucked into” his current job.
“I’m in that glorious position of being paid to do what I love and that’s because I understand the plight of people with addiction. Many people are with me for just a short time before evaporating into the ether. When I first see someone, neither of us know for sure whether this is ‘the right time’; when it does turn out to be the right time, that’s really inspiring.”
He says people who don’t understand addiction often ask him why he keeps doing this work when the long-term success rate is so low.
“Well, what’s the measure of a successful result? If someone is being heard for the first time in their life, that’s a result. And for the person it’s a huge result! When someone gets confident enough to seek employment without an advocate next to them, that’s a result.”
Damian reckons he’s come up with a few simple and quiet innovations he uses in his practice. One of them is conversation.
“If I go to WINZ with someone in early recovery, and we’re in the waiting room for 20 minutes I can either talk to them about how the Warriors just played or invite them to talk about how their recovery’s going.
“Nine times out of 10 they choose recovery. We talk about the pitfalls and do a bit of information-swapping and motivation and then we go and do the advocacy thing – so it’s a really easy transition.”
While researching treatment methodology and thinking about what worked for his own recovery Damian came across Mark Steinberg, a psychologist who has worked with thousands of people experiencing addiction issues in America and whose methods gelled with his own experience.
So he created a generic blueprint from Steinberg’s website and uses that with peer support clients, turning it into something uniquely suitable for each one. These individualised blueprints cover such things as - what their support system will be, who they will and won’t associate with and what their personal triggers are. He knows from personal experience that it’s more effective to introduce things the person feels they want to do.
“No one knows their own lives better than they themselves and I work according to the iceberg model. Drugs and alcohol are usually just the tip of the iceberg and below the surface is why we drink or use and what can we do to address those things that have happened or are happening in our lives,” he says.
Damian thinks the future of peer support work is really building in New Zealand.
“When I started doing this six years ago there was still that old ‘clinicians versus peer support and never the twain shall meet’ thinking. Now I think we’re much more aware of how crucial peer support work is - and that includes the Government.
“In my early green years as a peer support worker I once asked a person whether they’d rather have someone in a white coat asking them questions out of a textbook or someone like me who had been there and done that. His answer was a simple, ‘both’.
“At the end of the day it’s whatever will work for you. My experience gives me the ability to break down barriers because I know how people feel. Others are able to make helpful mental health diagnoses and really, this is just putting both arms around the person who needs help right now.”
Two years into his recovery Damian says he re-connected with his artistic side. The photo with this article shows Damian at an exhibition of his work in June 2017. His paintings can be seen in the background.