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Understanding recovery from a family perspective: A survey of life in recovery for families

Family members of people in addiction and recovery have important things to say, and yet their voices are rarely heard. While there is a well-established research evidence base showing the impact of addiction recovery on the lives of drinkers (and other substance users) themselves, this is the first piece of work that illustrates the impact - across multiple domains - of recovery on family members around dependent drinkers. The effect of living with a family member who is dependent on alcohol or other substances is substantial and long-lasting: over 70% of participating family members reporting lifetime emotional or mental health problems, and over one-third suffered from those problems at the time of the survey.

Whether the person with substance use issue is currently using clearly affects the wellbeing of family members. Those family members who reported that a loved one was in recovery showed markedly better functioning across all of the areas of physical and psychological health, and quality of life than when the loved one had relapsed. In other words, family members are not only positively influenced by the recovery of the dependent drinker, they are also susceptible to reversals if these gains are lost. This is critical given the finding that the impact of recovery crosses so many domains of the family members' lives.

This report highlights the toll that addiction exerts not only on individual drinkers but on those around them, and it clearly establishes the importance of recovery in mitigating some of these adverse effects. At the same time, it shows that while families as a whole experience significant benefits through the recovery journey of loved ones, not all of the emotional damage is reversed, and relapse undermines at least some of the positive gains.

It is clear that family members need support not only to assist loved ones dealing with addiction but in their own rights. The challenges faced by many of our participants in finding the right kinds of support suggests that such services are both needed and inadequately provided, with too great a reliance on voluntary community groups run by committed peers.

This report confirms the need for a focus on families, as well as individual substance users, when planning treatment and recovery interventions. It shows that family members are both a resource to support recovery, and people who own lives can be transformed through recovery. Supporting families is essential to developing an integrated approach to reducing alcohol harms, and understanding the experiences of family members plays a key role in achieving this goal.