“I’ve been privileged to see people at their best and worst”

Communications Officer Kate Holley talks with Community Development Manager Debra Anderson about what brought her to Mentor and what drug prevention work means to her.

3 June 2019 | News

Debra is our Community Development Manager and recently worked as the project lead on our government funded project, ‘Real-Life Skills (RLS)’. RLS delivered alcohol and drug education and life-skills training to young people in PRUs, alternative education arrangements and Academy schools in Blackpool. When I asked Debra how she got into the field of drug prevention work with young people she explained to me that it hadn’t been a straightforward road. She originally studied community education, but before coming to youth and community work, worked for many years as a substance misuse worker.

“My background is very different to what I do now”, she told me. “I was prescribing methadone just to keep people alive”. Debra’s previous role working with vulnerable people with serious addictions has given her experience across the intervention and prevention landscape. For the patients she visited, often at the places they bought and used drugs, preserving life was the focus. When I asked Debra what it was like working with people who were unlikely to become free of addition she said, “If you measure good outcomes as people becoming drug free, then it’s not the job for you. Getting behind closed doors and promoting good practice, that was the goal”.

It is this grounded approach that allows Debra to adapt to the needs of different groups of people. After working with people with serious addictions, she worked at a men’s prison, again as substance misuse worker. This experience served her well when she came to work for Mentor as the project lead on our Breaking Out project, based at HMPYOI Polmont. This programme was for young offenders (16-23 years old) who were often serving sentences for crimes committed under the influence of alcohol. Painting a portrait of these young men Debra said, “[They] had [all] experienced trauma at some point in their lives, most have SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) and have been in contact with social services since they were young. Some of the young men I worked with – I had met their dads and uncles in the prison I worked in before.” Understanding these young men’s backgrounds was, Debra said, crucial to finding positive ways to work with them.

Many of the young men that Debra worked with at Polmont had never thought about the underlying issues that led them to misuse alcohol and other drugs. As she put it, “We were giving them the information and skills to help them manage their drinking or drug use, and also a safe space to think about what they had done. The goal was to prevent more harm and to prevent them coming back into custody for a second, maybe third time”. In some cases, telling these young men that they should not be using any substances is a daunting and unwelcome prospect. As Debra said, “You have to convince them that you’re not there to take away the one thing that helps, but really talking about minimising the harm that can arise from use”.

Debra has now started from scratch on one of our new community programmes, developing Mentor’s The Girls Allowed Project (GAP), due to take on a brand new cohort of young women this June. Along with our Head of Community Programmes, Gez Lawson, she has spent the last few months meeting key players in Southwest Edinburgh and building up community links. This has ensured that GAP is built on community partnerships and working relationships with already existing community and youth services from the start.

The goal of Debra’s work now, including the work she does for Mentor, is to ensure young people know how to stay safe around substances, so they do not develop the problematic relationships with them that she has seen amongst others. To do this she has come right back around to drawing on her community education training to make sure that young people know how to take care of themselves and others in the environments that mean the most to them.