Thursday 24 November 2016

Novel Psychoactive Substances: “Cheap drug, better buzz for your money”

Posted by Fuse Associate Dr Michelle Addison, Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University

At the beginning of November practice partners, police, health professionals, academics and service users came together at ‘The Core’ in Newcastle to discuss the impact and consequences of Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) – commonly known as ‘legal highs’. Before anything had even begun we had the BBC on the phone, asking if they could come and film us and interview people about NPS for their forthcoming Panorama show, airing in 2017. NPS is certainly newsworthy. It has captured the public imagination in a myriad of ways, sparking fears of an epidemic, concerns over the impact it is having on resources, and headlines from The Independent declaring Newcastle to be ‘Britain’s most addicted city’. How much truth is there in these claims and how much of this is just hyperbole? What impact are NPS having on North East England, and what are the consequences? We tackled these questions during the event, generating lively debate. These discussions were grounded in the most up-to-date research, as well as city-wide strategies to tackle NPS, and personal accounts of NPS use.

Image courtesy of the bbc website
But what are NPS I hear you ask? They’ve been around a while – they are a group of synthetic or plant based substances that mimic the effects of other more well know illicit drugs like cannabis, ecstasy and heroin – to name a few. They have become increasingly popular across most of the United Kingdom, but particularly in the North East. The law recently changed in the UK (26 May 2016) making it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export (including over the internet) any psychoactive substances. However, possession of NPS is not an offence except in a custodial institution. The debates during our event showed that the speed of change in this drug market and an increase in the reported associated harms of NPS have meant that they are a growing concern to local, regional and national bodies.

Professor Eugene Milne, the Director for Public Health in Newcastle Local Authority, opened the discussions by highlighting that NPS use is continuing to put pressure on available resources across emergency responders in the local area, that service providers are working hard to develop pathways to treatment, and that there are unknown long-term health consequences for this group of people. He spoke about the local and city-wide strategies that are currently being developed through a collaborative process within the ‘Task and Finish’ group focused on tackling issues around NPS use, distribution and management.

Dr Michelle Addison (that’s me!) and Dr Kelly Stockdale were up next to discuss our research, funded by N8 Policing Partnership, about the impact and consequences that NPS are having on police practitioners and substance users in the North East. We showed that NPS users are perceived to be extremely volatile in custody and the staff were concerned with managing risk – both to themselves and this vulnerable group of people. The custody nurse was viewed to be a great asset but users were still frequently transferred to A&E – creating a further resourcing challenge. NPS users felt that the substances were be highly addictive and linked to poor health outcomes. They were keen on getting help and treatment but were unsure about where to access this.

We were joined by Kieran Platts, Project Officer at Youth Homeless North East (YHNE). He gave a lively account of the really valuable work he has undertaken exploring young people’s views on NPS. This work was prompted by concerns raised through the housing and youth homeless sector who report finding it increasingly difficult to manage the impact of NPS on their resources and service users. Kieran added to the debate, saying that NPS are undermining the operational delivery of services for homeless young people and adversely effecting young people’s ability to address their individual housing and associated needs.

Professor Simon Thomas, from Newcastle University, talked about the toxicology of NPS – an elegant and accessible insight into their chemistry and toxic effects. He presented interim data from the Identification of Novel psychoActive Substances (IONA) study which is collating information about the range and prevalence of NPS that are present in patients who have ingested acutely toxic substances in the UK. He talked everyone through the emerging trends of NPS use in different areas of the UK, as well as changes over time, and differences in clinical effect.

Lorna Smith, (Public Health Registrar) and Rachael Hope (Community Safety Specialist - Drugs) Newcastle City Council, delivered important key messages about the evidence led approach underway to address NPS across Newcastle. Leading on the Task and Finish group, they have developed a detailed city-wide plan focused on understanding the circumstances of the NPS user, improving practice, and ways of protecting vulnerable groups of people. They highlighted the importance of tackling supply in the city and across the force area, but described this as an iterative process of action and learning in a relatively unknown context.

Chris Strachan, who is currently a volunteer at Positive Response to Overcoming Problems of Substance misuse (PROPS) North East, talked us through his personal account of NPS from a user perspective – offering bold and challenging insights into how users are perceived. Not all users are vulnerable and some would prefer to self-identify as psychonauts (Davey et al., 2012) – people who purposely experiment with drugs and establish detailed technical knowledge. His feelings were that practitioners should not be fearful about engaging with NPS users, adding that they are often incredibly knowledgeable about the chemical structures of these substances.

We couldn’t permit the BBC to film us for ethical reasons, but many of our speakers have been in communication with them since and will appear on Panorama in 2017. After a lot of rich debate however, Chief Inspector Lisa Hogan, Northumbria Police, brought it all together by emphasising that there are ongoing strategies and research underway to expand the evidence base around NPS – but this needs to be further developed. These discussions helped to provide in depth insight into where we are at with NPS, and what we currently know – but of course, there is more to be done. Future directions at the moment are focused on developing meaningful therapeutic interventions to help support users and understand the long-term health outcomes from NPS use.

The event Novel Psychoactive Substance (NPS) use and its consequences was delivered in partnership with Public Health England (John Liddell) and Fuse.

Join the discussion on Twitter using: #NPSimpact

Thursday 17 November 2016

What do I really get from a conference?

Posted by Christina Cooper, Fuse Postgraduate Researcher, Faculty of Health & Life sciences, Northumbria University

As a PhD student there comes a point in your research when you are ready to start disseminating your work and opening it up to feedback from your peers. This is not only important for your personal development as a researcher, but also in demonstrating your contribution to knowledge, a vital step, the importance of which is reinforced throughout the PhD process. Conferences provide an accessible and valuable way for students to present their work, as either a poster or short oral presentation. Attending a conference can feel daunting at first, but regardless of whether you are presenting or not, the benefits of attending and participating cannot be highlighted enough. Conferences can be regional, national or international, but they all share in common the opportunity to learn from, and network with peers and experts with some shared common interest.

Far from being 'just a poster' - an opportunity to discuss my work
I am a public health PhD student at the beginning of my third, and final, year investigating what works, for whom, and in what circumstances in the prevention of risky behaviour by young people, using realist methodologies. For me, my second year felt like the ideal time to begin disseminating my work, through publishing in peer reviewed journals and attending conferences. I have participated in a number of conferences over the last year, from small university based and local regional conferences, to larger national and international conferences. Submissions so far have been in poster format, detailing various aspects of my research covering the research protocol, methodology, and early findings. Far from being ‘just a poster’ these presentations have provided me with an opportunity to discuss my work with other students, and professionals in the field, helping me to develop my ideas, make connections with those investigating similar subjects, and perhaps most importantly, to build up a support network with those in a similar position to myself. The expert advice and guidance gained from a conference is of course invaluable, but often there is nothing more reassuring, when you are struggling with a difficult concept, than hearing the words ‘me too’. Knowing you are not alone can be just the motivation you need to keep reading, keep talking, and keep going until you find a way through.

Most recently I attended the 2nd International Conference on Realist Evaluation and Synthesis held by the Centre for Advancement of Realist Evaluation and Synthesis (CARES), in London. The focus of which was Advancing Principles and Strengthening Practice. Aside from the benefits of presenting
as discussed above, attendance at this three day conference allowed me to attend talks and presentations by a wide range of researchers, including some of the biggest names in realist research. Covering subjects addressing complexity in public health research, attaining funding for realist projects, and knowledge building and translation. The breadth and depth of the material presented provided insight into the realist methodology that would be hard to gain elsewhere. In addition to these thought provoking sessions, time was given to discussion of the myriad of ways in which the realist methodology is employed in research, and how these may be developed to advance knowledge, not just within our specific fields, but also within the methodology itself. These ‘open mic’ sessions, in which disagreement was not only welcome, but encouraged, provided an opportunity to think through new ideas, allowing us to present, debate, challenge and defend our use of the realist methodology regardless of level of expertise. For me, being present for and involved in these discussions was a unique opportunity which allowed me to engage with my chosen methodology at a deeper level.

"...disagreement was not only welcome, but encouraged..."
As a student, relatively new to realism, two key themes emerged repeatedly over the course of the conference. Firstly, how do I know what I am doing is really realist? Secondly, the difficulty of grappling with the complexity of realist research as a lone working student. Both issues I have experienced myself in the last two years, and were indeed part of the reason I wanted to attend the conference; it was greatly reassuring to discover I was not the only one. Not only were there other students there feeling exactly the same way, many of the other delegates, including some of the ‘big names’ such as Professor Ray Pawson, Dr Gill Westhorp, and Professor David Byrne were able to identify with us, and provide support and encouragement. There is still a great deal of work to be done in taking the realist methodology forwards and I am excited about being a part of that, both in the work towards my PhD, and as a researcher in the future.

Photo attribution: “Academic fact fight - debate” by Frits Ahlefeldt via, copyright © 2015:

Thursday 10 November 2016

It’s complicated: health inequalities and e-cigarettes

Guest post by Frances Thirlway, Fuse Associate member, Anthropology Department, Durham University

While the e-cigarette wars continue to rage, we still have very little information on the extent to which the most disadvantaged smokers are using e-cigarettes to quit. The smoking toolkit provides invaluable information regarding overall UK usage; however, most international research into the practices of e-cigarette users has been done via on-line user groups or forums. For anyone concerned with health inequalities and the social gradient in smoking, this is of limited use since the digital divide means that e-cigarette users active on internet forums are unlikely to come from the poorer communities where smoking is now concentrated.

Figure 1: The life cycle of a vaper - but note the gendered image

In contrast, slow research ‘takes the local as a starting point’ and does this through ‘extended interaction in particular sites’ (Adams 2014 p. 181). Anthropological work involving in-depth place-based research and examining local culture as a dynamic influence can be particularly helpful in researching e-cigarette use. This is not only because user practices vary according to age, gender, class and other factors, but also because e-cigarettes themselves are not a single product. Moreover, the typical ‘user life cycle’ involves a progression from basic to more sophisticated models of e-cigarettes over time. Complete smoking cessation can happen at any point in this process and is likely to be gradual and difficult to capture in simplistic smoker/former smoker divisions, which is why research which follows smokers and quitters over months or years is needed – one participant in my recent study took three years to move from dual use of tobacco and e-cigarettes to e-cigarette use only, and he was not untypical. As Figure 1 and the associated article illustrate, most successful users start with ‘first-generation’ models, but those who persevere generally find that second-generation models and beyond are more satisfying.

The key word here is ‘successful’ - because switching from tobacco to e-cigarettes is not an easy process. I found that users: ‘struggle with the time, effort and expense involved in finding the ‘right’ e-cigarette and the frequency of product failure i.e. cheaper tank models splitting, leaking, or bubbling if over-tightened or dropped, and problems with batteries running out or failing to charge.’ This meant that: ‘unless users were highly motivated to quit, smoking was significantly easier, and often cheaper taking into account the cost of e-cigarette replacement and the ready availability of illicit tobacco.’ (Thirlway 2016 pp. 109-110)

Whilst some public bodies and individual users have started to provide information and guidance about using e-cigarettes to quit smoking, many barriers to use remain, particularly for the poorest. There is little doubt that you are more likely to switch successfully if you can afford to try different models, and replace the ones you break. It also helps if you have time to spare, a fondness for electronic gadgets and the ability to feel at home in the – largely male - vaping subculture.

These and other issues are explored further in: Thirlway, F. (2016) Everyday tactics in local moral worlds: e-cigarette practices in a working-class area of the UK. Social Science & Medicine 170 pp. 106-113

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Too stressed for words? Involving those experiencing stress in research (part 2)

Posted by Fuse members Sonia Dalkin, Lecturer in Public Health and Wellbeing, and Natalie Forster, Senior Research Assistant, Northumbria University

Following on from our post last year on National Stress Awareness Day, and in light of the current media attention paid to welfare benefits, we wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the difficulties of involving those experiencing stress in research. This is in relation to our recent recruitment efforts for a realist evaluation of the impact of Citizens Advice (CA) on health.

"Stress" by Bernard Goldbach
CA provide independent, impartial, confidential, and free advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities. This includes advice on debt, benefits, employment, housing and discrimination. Throughout the study, a recurrent theme of stress has been evident. The links between stress and health are abundant. This stress lens therefore formed the health focus of the study, overcoming the difficulties of recording the variety of outcomes leading to health improvements and capturing changes to health which would only be evident beyond the study timescale. Determining if and how CA services reduce stress should enable us to project the potential health impact of CA.

We carried out a mixed methods evaluation, detailed here. This required CA clients to complete a questionnaire when they first accessed CA and six weeks later. CA staff collected the questionnaire data for the research. Twenty-seven clients were also invited to participate in interviews. CA staff were initially apprehensive about data collection, due to clients often being in crisis and therefore having extremely high levels of stress.

Initially, recruitment was very slow. This was due to a variety of factors, some of which could be related to stress:
  • Some clients were too stressed to engage in completing the questionnaire at Time 1 (initial contact with CA).
  • CA staff found it extremely difficult at times to get in contact with clients at Time 2 (six weeks later). This was often due to their own heavy workload but also due to client reluctance to answer calls from unknown numbers (CA has a withheld number) and client wishes to move on with their lives once issues had been resolved.
  • Clients were reluctant to participate in interviews because they were too stressed and had often been let down by other organisations when disclosing personal information. 
  • Some clients also suffered from severe mental health issues which meant they found the prospect of an interview very stressful. 
To overcome these barriers, several strategies were employed. These were developed collaboratively with CA, and through engagement with the project steering group.

  • We worked with CA staff to develop a bespoke questionnaire, meaning that CA staff felt confident that it was not over burdensome for clients. This included shortened versions of questionnaires where possible. Questionnaires were also carried out by a client’s named CA contact who they trusted and would be more comfortable disclosing information to.
  • We ensured that CA staff had a detailed understanding of the research aims in order to explain the research clearly to participants and gain their trust in the research. They could therefore highlight the importance of completing the Time 2 questionnaire to participants. When participants understood that the research aim was to show the ‘good work’ CA do, as opposed to focusing on their issues, they were more likely to engage. 
  • Offering interviews at a client’s home or via skype, in addition to the original offer of interviews at CA Gateshead allowed for participants to be in a location where they felt most relaxed.
  • Offering clients the option of having their named and trusted CA staff member attend the interview for the first 10 minutes allowed this trusting relationship to be transported to the interviewer.
  • Offering clients the option of having a relative or friend attend the interview also helped to put the client at ease. In one case, the client gave permission for their partner to do the interview on their behalf as they had been highly involved in the process of interacting with CA.
These improved strategies led to the collection of 261 Time 1 questionnaires with a 92 per cent follow up rate, and 23 clients participating in interviews.

Although CA staff were initially apprehensive about data collection, working in partnership and being flexible with recruitment strategies overcame this. It is important to provide all clients with the option of participating in research; presumptions of non-participation remove client autonomy which is unethical. In this research project and all research with people experiencing difficult circumstances it is essential to involve - where possible - any potential participants, the organisations working with clients, and experts, to find the most fruitful recruitment strategies.

The CA research team also consists of Monique Lhussier (Reader in Public Health and Wellbeing); Philip Hodgson (Senior Research Assistant) and Sue Carr (Professor of Public Health Research), who have all read and contributed to this blog post.

The study ‘Exposing the impact of advice services on health and inequalities’ is funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR), via the Public Health Practice Evaluation Scheme (PHPES). The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.


Photo attribution: “Stress” by Bernard Goldbach via, copyright © 2011: