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The Queen's Award for Voluntary Service


The Nacoa Helpline has grown from the hopes and dreams of five people who wanted children struggling with parental alcohol problems to have the help and support that they did not have.

The charity was set up in 1990 in response to work with substance users at St Joseph’s Centre for Addiction in Haslemere, Surrey. Following detox at Holy Cross Hospital, people would come into the centre for a five-week programme looking at their substance use, charting its history and planning a recovery. We often saw people come back into treatment, feeling ashamed and full of guilt, telling us that they could not maintain their sobriety at home; they simply did not fit into their families without the drink or drug.

And why should they when the family had been given little or no support. No chance to stop and think about the impact addiction had had on each of the family members and on the family itself, or the opportunity to plan for a different future. The family had often blamed ‘the drink’ or ‘the drug’ for everything wrong in the family and hoped that by its elimination, their homes would become happy, healthy places – a magical solution to all problems.

Families who subsequently attended a family programme told us that their lives had been similarly impacted by their loved one’s drink or drug use. They often used ‘something’ to reward themselves when they were stressed; they too isolated themselves from friends and family, people who might help. They denied the problem and suffered with a range of physical and emotional illnesses. Often the only difference was that they had simply not picked up the drink or drug – or perhaps it did not work for them in that way that overwhelmingly transforming way that people dependent on alcohol or drugs often describe.

And lost in the re-arrangement of family life to accommodate not only the drink or drug (‘the elephant in the room’) but also a code of silence, the denial of any problems, were the children who were sometimes ‘dragged along’ to family days.

Some sat quietly afraid to say the wrong thing, being perfect – a shining example of how well their family was doing. Some refused to come, or attended and shouted, kicked and screamed and did all their power to be excluded from the group. Some were simply not seen. They were present but were away in another safer internal world and others made us laugh and smile, although there was a sadness that was tangible if you just looked beyond the eyes swimming with fun or was it fear?

How strange it must have seemed to them to be suddenly breaking all the old rules and being encouraged to talk about ‘the problem’. Some found recalling past traumatic events too much to bear and would disappear either physically or into their own private world. Others found words although often simply described events but not how they felt.

This isn’t what parents want for their children but when they are struggling with substance abuse, they are often unable to provide consistent nurturing for their children. The result is years – a childhood-worth – of accumulated social and psychological problems which increase the likelihood that their children will suffer, achieving lower educational levels and physical and mental health problems.

If inconsistent care continues for a prolonged period, the child’s needs for attention, security and affection often go unmet and unarticulated. These needs are repressed and denied although they remain and seeking to satisfy them does not end, often becoming distorted and misdirected and acted out ‘inappropriately’, sometimes through depression, aggression, eating problems, an exaggerated need to control, self-harm and substance abuse as a means of coping.

The stigma of alcoholism and addiction compounds the problem when the family – parents, siblings, extended family – collude to keep their problems secret from the outside world in an effort to keep their family together and ‘safe’. It is perhaps the secretiveness that grows up with addition that causes most harm. If we want children to seek help and support we must look at the wider implications of the tide of irresponsible media coverage when people suffering with addictions are demonised and scapegoated for all the ills in society today.

Government and policy makers need to look beyond addictions and ask why, why so many people turn to drink or drugs. Not one of the many people we worked with told us that they woke up one day and thought they would drink too much or take drugs to ruin their lives and hurt their families.

From working with children at St Joseph’s centre, it became clear that it was excruciatingly painful for them to express how they felt and to feel safe enough to utter words previously forbidden; how much harder it is for children living with active addiction where the problem is denied – buried deep.

And so the Nacoa helpline was set up to empower these children with a variety of life skills to help them cope with difficult challenges. Telephone and email helplines allow children access to help and support without revealing themselves. Their need for privacy and control is respected. They can ring and terminate the call when they want. They can talk about whatever is troubling them that day, at that moment. They are heard and believed.

The ordinary constrictions of prejudice and judgement – what you wear, how you look, what trainers you have – do not exist. They can remain unseen and in as safe a place as possible, while they begin to find the words to talk about themselves, their lives and their feelings. Sometimes they call at the point of crisis and we remain with them on the phone; a kindly voice in what might seem a hostile world.

Our callers talk about living with unpredictable behaviour, being abused or ignored, witnessing aggression between family members, feeling frightened on a daily basis in their own homes; often believing they are to blame for their family’s problems.

Many talk about feeling anxious and depressed, different from other people and isolated without knowing why. They may be exposed to rage and violence or suffer from a chronic lack and neglect of the little things, which are crucial to the wellbeing of every child. They may have taken on the responsibility of looking after younger brothers and sisters.

The Nacoa helpline has been developed by listening and taking account of what children and young people tell us they want and need. They are the true architects of our services and ambassadors to other children, that there is help, there is hope and there is a different way to survive.

And 23 years on, at the heart of Nacoa there is still a passion to ensure that children do not suffer alone and in fear. We’ve responded to over 202,000 calls from children as young as five, who find the courage to call the helpline knowing that they can remain anonymous; freeing them to talk openly, by allowing them to remain in control. We are truly privileged to work with these children. They trust us with their darkest thoughts and fears, talk to us about the very worst of human behaviour and show us the very best. They are testaments to the tenacity of the human spirit and remind us again and again never to underestimate how important it is to listen and how important it is to be heard.

Further information

For more information please see Nacoa Helpline Model of Care.

Timeline 1990 to 2015

Since 1990 Nacoa has responded to over 202,000 helpline calls and emails with the help of over 1,000 trained volunteers; and registered over 850,000 visits to the website.



























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