Tom White is a support worker at a residential centre run by Odyssey in Counties Manukau. The centre caters for up to 19 people experiencing co-existing problems (CEP) with addiction and mental health.
He says the work is really varied and can range from helping residents back into housing, dealing with documentation, and just giving general support with whatever they need as they work through the programme. He runs therapeutic community-based groups and also does one-on one personal therapy sessions covering issues that don’t require a trained clinician.
A graduate of the programme himself, Tom says he can really relate to the personal difficulties faced by the people he works with. He’s experienced both addiction and mental health challenges and says mental health problems are often associated when people have taken drugs for a lengthy period.
“So it’s about identifying the life skills they need to work on or the trauma they’ve experienced and putting in place an individual treatment plan for them, creating an environment where they can feel safe enough to change,” he says.
In 2010 Tom was paroled after four years in prison. Once he’d been a professional football player for Liverpool in the UK, and when severe injury took this dream away from him he spent several years looking for something else that would replace its passion. When the bar he established begin having financial troubles he started dealing drugs and was eventually convicted of methamphetamine manufacture.
He says by that stage addiction had made his life a mess and he was feeling ready for change. “I was actually pretty lucky. I had a sympathetic lawyer and a lot of support people around me, which got me on the right foot going into prison. Other inmates who had done the Odyssey programme were also supportive as were prison staff and even the Police, so I got to feeling pretty motivated and I’m so grateful.”
These experiences are invaluable to Tom in his work and really help him pass on that motivation.
“Some people now in the programme knew me back when I was involved with drugs and just the fact that I have been able to straighten myself out can help people see that there is help available and that things can get better.”
He says the first impression for a lot of people is that treatment is all about rules and consequences and that can be a real barrier for some.
“But I can explain to them from my own experience that a lot of what’s happening at first is just like a seed; that this is the way to make a start, but that real change can grow from it and be maintained in how they relate to their families and to their communities.”
Problems with mental health that can be associated with drug use and exposure to stressful situations is also something Tom understands and he loves the CEP aspect to his work.
“It was sort of the finishing touches on my treatment and helped me understand some of my behaviours and the decisions I had made – but also how to create a safe environment for myself now.”
Tom’s been with Odyssey for three years. He joined the team as an intern and gets a lot of core on-the-job training while he studies for the National Certificate in Mental Health and Addiction Support (Level 4). He plans to do further study to qualify as a practitioner and says Odyssey has been great at supporting him in this.
While Tom says the outcomes for people he works with aren’t always perfect, he loves that he’s helping to create a difference for some, and he says the positives make up for the downsides.
“Every time we have a graduation and I see the ‘grads’ up the front with their families and support people around them all looking so pleased, I know I’m doing the right thing.
“This is what really inspires me. We hear about a lot of negative outcomes in the media, but one thing I learned when I was in prison is that anybody is capable of anything, and the times when I see the happy families, kids and partners are what keeps me going.”
What Tom values about the Odyssey programme is that treatment plans are so individualised.
“I like how we’re pretty flexible around a person’s unique needs and that we understand that things aren’t always black and white. People are different, so we’re willing to factor in something like a gym membership or time with family, even though we’re residential. This can be difficult to manage because we have to be fair, but I do think it leads to better outcomes.”
He thinks this is where most treatment is heading nowadays and that there’s a much better understanding of the benefits of a team approach.
“It’s great that clinical workers and people with lived experience now have an equal voice, but I also think it’s really important to understand not just your own role, but how important all the roles are in helping the people in your care so you can work together effectively.”
Tom is 42 and lives in West Auckland. His partner Rachel is a social worker for the Salvation Army’s Bridge programme and Tom says it’s great to be with someone who works in a similar area because of the way they can support each other.