The importance of families in the recovery process

The importance of families in the recovery process

The last few months have given my colleagues and I – my ‘Odyssey family’ - a real opportunity to reflect on family and community.

We’ve started to consider more deeply the importance of families and communities, defined in a broad and inclusive fashion, and how we can support families directly.

Our recent focus has been to support the family and the community surrounding a client, because that supports the outcome.

Whatever an individual’s understanding of family is, within their context, providing support to that loving, supportive network and allowing, where possible, that network into the individual’s recovery process improves the process for everyone.

We understand that being aware of the impact that families and communities have had on a person’s life and being aware of the importance of family, however that is defined, in the recovery journey, is vital.

This narrative has emerged through a number of recent events – the opening of the Odyssey Family Recovery Centre, our participation in the recent World Pride March, expanded engagement with Aboriginal communities, the start of Odyssey Multicultural Services and an invitation to speak at International Family Drug Support Day.

The first of these was the opening of the Odyssey Family Recovery Centre in February this year.

The Family Recovery Centre (FRC) provides residential Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD), Mental Health (MH) and parenting support for parents, singles or couples, male, female, or non-binary with their accompanying children. The FRC also provides parenting support and family case management for clients of the residential treatment program who have children but whose children do not accompany them.

Working to develop the Model of Care for this centre and looking at its aims, but also working with and meeting the mums and dads who are living at the centre has given me a fresh opportunity to think about what family means, the impact of addiction and AOD related harm on the family, but also the impact of the family on addiction and substance related harms. One of the goals of the program is to break what is often an inter-generational cycle of addiction that usually has little to do with genetics.

Living with a parent or care giver who is struggling to overcome addiction (and understanding that not all parental alcohol and other drug use causes harm to children) can have significant effects on childhood development including particularly around attachment, but also in other areas of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and development. Supporting the child(ren) and family unit, however that looks, to recover, alongside the individual who is the primary person receiving treatment and support provides short term benefits but can additionally prevent a repeated cycle.

We also have the opportunity to understand, through working with parents and families, but also in all our work with individuals, the significant correlation between adverse childhood experiences and trauma, particularly trauma related to childhood and addiction and other harmful use of alcohol and other drugs.

As we will see below, working with families and communities (in the broad sense of the word and as identified by the person) is an important part of healing and recovery.

It needs to be handled sensitively and in a person-centred way, however, as often the family dynamics and childhood experiences remain painful and tied up in AOD use in a range of ways.

The meaning of family and community was at the centre of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, coincident with the World Pride event held in Sydney. Under our ‘Odyssey is for Everyone‘ banner, Odyssey House NSW had the opportunity for our clients and staff to march alongside staff from Odyssey House Victoria (OHVic) in the Work Pride March across the Harbour Bridge.

Odyssey has taken part in the Pride in Health and Wellbeing audit of our programs and services and met with our colleagues from OHVic to hear about their experience of working towards Rainbow Tick accreditation, which they have achieved.

We have had a real opportunity to understand that people of diverse genders and sexualities are members of diverse families.

We have learned this through reflecting on our contributions to the Pride Audit, and through discussions with the clients and residents, and through engaging with the LGBTQ+ Inclusive and Affirming Practice Guidelines Odyssey.

LGBTQ+ people may or may not have contact with their biological families or families of origin. Some may have had experiences of estrangement resulting from family discrimination or rejection associated with sexuality or gender identity.

LGBTQ+ people may draw great strength from their peers and their chosen families or families of choice. At Odyssey we need to understand this and understand our approach to working with families and communities needs to fully comprehend this notion of ‘chosen families’, as this may be far more important to people and be far more supportive than biological or family of origin.

Then there is our expanded engagement with Aboriginal communities.

We have achieved this particularly through the Mingu Yabun program, but also through key partnerships and relationships with Aboriginal Community Controlled organisations.

Addictions Conference Blog post image 2 (1)

Odyssey understands that Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) are a vital option for Aboriginal people seeking support of any type for their use of Alcohol and Other Drugs or other similar support needs.

Receiving support or treatment within an ACCHO feels culturally safe for many people and ACCHOs are also often able to provide a more holistic form of care than many mainstream organisations are able to. However, many Aboriginal people receive support from non-Aboriginal Community Controlled programs and services, sometimes by choice, and sometimes due to accessibility, and it is therefore important that mainstream organisations, organisations like Odyssey are able be accessible and supportive in a culturally appropriate way.

At some points, the Family Recovery Centre, referred to above, has been entirely occupied by Aboriginal mums and dads and their kids.

Partly for this reason, years ago, Odyssey developed the Mingu Yabun (‘spiritually speaking and sharing’) program, first in the residential programs and later in the non-residential (Community) programs.

The Mingu Yabun program was designed to integrate both mainstream AOD treatment approaches and cultural approaches. The mainstream approaches incorporate elements of DBT, ACT, and CBT while the cultural approaches include enrichment of recovery through yarning, narrative therapy, storytelling, art and craft, Dreamtime stories, Dadirri (deep listening and contemplation) and cultural activities.

The Mingu Yabun program, particularly in the residential setting will often also involve one-on-one support from Aboriginal staff around personal issues but also around individual supports such as reconnecting to country or culture or community.

Expanding the Mingu Yabun program, and particularly as we expanded in the community settings and worked more and more with Aboriginal communities, and community-controlled organisations, and working more and more with Aboriginal families through the Reconnecting Families suite of services within Odyssey has helped us really reflect on and gain a deeper understanding of what family and community means to Aboriginal people and Communities, including understanding the concept of kinship.

Family is pivotal to the wellbeing of Aboriginal individuals and communities and their culture; families are important in defining identity and a sense of connectedness to kinship and culture.

For Aboriginal people, the family structure is an extended one and responsibility for raising children may be shared across the extended family. Aboriginal people’s understanding of family and community may involve kinship and kinship obligations and responsibilities. All these factors are important to take into consideration and to be respectful of when working with Aboriginal people, families, and communities.

Similarly, Odyssey has had the opportunity to begin delivering multicultural programs, a suite of treatment and support programs to support people and communities that are culturally or linguistically diverse.

The Multicultural Programs provide individual and group treatment and support as well as case management and a range of other direct treatment services to individuals from a range of cultural, linguistic, and religious groups. The Multicultural Programs also provide Community Development support and other supports to CALD communities and groups.

Working with CALD communities, and with our staff and management of CALD backgrounds we have learned several things.

We have learned just how various and diverse CALD and Multicultural groups in Australia, there is certainly no one size fits all approach when working with communities from such a variety of backgrounds.

We have also learned though that family is absolutely vital in so many of these groups. Working from within a model of care that recognises and supports the family and community and what that means to the individual is so important when working to support a person to achieve their goals.

We have learned that family breakdown caused by stigma related to AOD use or other associated factors can be a key source of shame and pain for people from CALD backgrounds (or any backgrounds) and it may be that this needs to be addressed when working with people.

We have learned that people from CALD backgrounds often have a different pathway to support than may be seen as more common in mainstream services.

Those from religious communities will often seek support from their religious leaders before a health professional, similarly others may seek support or advice from community leaders. Supporting these leaders and elders and improving community knowledge can be key to lowering barriers to support as can supporting mainstream services to understand how to support those from CALD backgrounds who come to them or need to know how to come to them for support.

And of course, intersectionality comes into play also. Many people Odyssey or any AOD support service comes into contact with may be from one or more of these communities, they may be gay and Muslim, they may be Aboriginal and come from a background or trauma and disorganised attachment, they may have had some other experience. All these intersections become important when we understand what family means to that person, and how best to support them.

The last opportunity I had to reflect, was through an invitation to speak at International Family Drug Support Day in February this year. I actually spoke on similar topics to what I have written here, there are many understandings of family, and not all family history is positive.

Odyssey NSW seeks to support individuals, families, and communities to minimise harms related to AOD use, mental health distress, and other related issues, and to progress on their own recovery journey.

Our Vision is ‘A world free from addiction’ and that includes providing supports to minimise the impacts of addiction but also to prevent or mitigate addiction and other harms from happening.

We cannot do that if we don’t harness the power of families and communities – and recognise the diverse forms in which they appear.


David Kelly

Director, Programs

Odyssey House NSW

Blog photo David Kelly (1)

Odyssey House NSW


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