What’s Next?

Following our recent attendance at the European Mental Health Conference, the question arises “What Next?”.

Dorien wrote an excellent article for the Service News in which she spoke about the warm reception that AA was given by the mental health professionals. We, on our side, were also impressed by their dedication and enthusiasm.

There was immediate follow up. We gave a masterclass for nurses in Utrecht with a similar activity planned in Romania in a few weeks’ time. We have also been invited to present a workshop at this year’s European Mental Health Conference. These activities help to re-inforce the mutually positive feelings and respect that exists between mental health services and AA. It prepares the ground for co-operation. We now need to think about what this co-operation could be and how we can be of most use to the still suffering alcoholic.

One common theme running through the conference was that mental health services find themselves under resourced and in a financial squeeze. This seems to be universal and not confined to any one country.  People are always impressed by AA’s insistence on being self-supporting and the individual member’s willingness to serve without recompense. We, of course, know the amazing rewards of carrying the message and helping another alcoholic.

The point we have reached is worth it in its own right. We can expect more referrals but does it have to stop here? It is worth looking at where we are as a fellowship. Our worldwide membership has been stuck on 2 million for the last 30 years. In this sense we have stagnated. Perhaps we should not expect more than the 1 million members we have in the US. Even if this is so, we can hardly be satisfied with a membership of 1 million in the rest of the world. I live in the Netherlands where there are perhaps 2500 members in both English and Dutch AA. We are not reaching the hundreds of thousands of alcoholics reported (officially) to be in the Netherlands. This sombre picture is replicated across most of Europe and in the UK. However, doing better is possible. In Poland there are tens of thousands of members. If can do better we will reach people who will otherwise die in misery and despair.

Our new friends, these health professionals at the conference, were very concerned about dual diagnosed patients – service users they called them. These are people with a combination of mental health problems and alcoholism or drug addiction. These mental health problems on their own must be terrifying. They include schizophrenia, bi-polar and depression. It is easy to understand how these people turn to alcohol and drugs.

One acute problem for mental health patients is their return to society. After a period of in-patient treatment, they are sent out to, often unwelcoming bed and breakfast lodging. There they are expected to leave after breakfast and not return until the evening. These are hardly circumstances conducive to recovery from anything.

It seems to me that this is where we can offer a much needed helping hand to alcoholic and dual diagnosed alcoholic patients. I remember fondly the warm welcome I was given when I first found AA. Members arranged to see me before the meetings, went for coffee afterwards and invited me for meals at their homes. It was this kindness that kept me coming back. I am convinced that there are many of us who feel the same as I do and want to give back what was so freely given to us.

Individual groups could establish a relationship with their local mental health care services. I imagine that sometimes this will work well but, on other occasions there could be problems on both sides. I could quite easily see myself blundering in. We will need humility and a willingness to learn, at the same time remaining true to our core values.

This idea could be extended to a national level and I think it is here that we could be most effective. National workshops, a national help line specific to mental health services, trained sponsors or buddies are ideas that bubble up. Even if AA is not as large as we would like, we do have many thousands of volunteers at the disposal of our still suffering friends.

We would need to find a limited amount of money to support this sort of work, and it should come from our own resources. One of the great strengths of the fellowship is that we don’t have much money, and we all understand the wisdom of our founders who structured us so. However, if we spend money on this, it probably means spending less on something else.

An example of this is our own CER (Continental European Region). I am encouraged about recent developments at this level, where resources have been made available to meet our Primary Purpose (the still suffering alcoholic). The CER group conscience concluded that some of the face to face meetings, which cost close to €7,000 to conduct, be replaced by online meetings. CER was then able to refocus some of its resources on PI activities, leading to supporting attendance at the European Mental Health Conference, followed by the masterclasses and so on.

Until recently, the CER meetings have had a strong inward focus, dealing with issues such as the wording of the region’s 60 page Guidelines or the structure of the financial system. CER’s recent development towards a more balanced inward/outward focus is welcome and refreshing. I believe that this example could be applied at other levels of our service structure. Perhaps, as AA Great Britain, we are also rather inwardly focussed and this is reflected in the allocation of our service time and finance.

This is a question I ask myself especially about Conference. Judging by the content of the questions over the past 30 years there has been a persistent and strong emphasis on internal AA issues. Annually, many thousands of Pounds, coming from the 7th Tradition, is spent on Conference. A substantial amount of members’ time and effort is expended on gathering input at group and intergroup level. In addition, three days are spent in York by more than 100 of our members. Possibly, we could find a way to reduce this amount of time and money and reallocate it towards our Primary Purpose instead.

There is, I believe, a great deal still to be done and I am convinced that we really do have good will to do it.


07 February 2015