Breaching Barriers

I was asked a question the other day. 

One which I know is often on the mind of so many tasked with reaching out with offers of support to individuals actively experiencing harm or at risk of developing such harm from addiction and other adverse conditions.

In this instance it was in the context of Gambling Harms but the question, and my answer, apply equally to all addictions and areas of mental health.

So, what was the question.

How do we reach those in “hard to reach” communities?

This is such a hard question to answer – for two reasons.

The first being that by even phrasing the question we are seemingly accepting that there are barriers we are unable to cross and that (as things currently stand) we are on the wrong side of that barrier.

The second being that if we were to accept the validity of the first assumption (about barriers existing) then we have to start trying to identify just who the “hard to reach” communities are and what it is about them which makes them hard to reach. Which effectively means we have to reinforce the concept of barriers by categorising each and every attribute which makes someone different from ourselves. And guess what – we end up with an infinite number of barriers because there are an infinite number of differences between unique individuals.

Diversity and inclusion should not be about inventing barriers which we then need to breach but should rather be about refusing to accept that there are meaningful barriers which make me different from you, and them different from us.

Instead of challenging differences we should be embracing similarities.

Instead of tailoring an approach to reach one specific group – thus creating a potential exclusion of many others – we should be creating an approach where all are seen as being equals and all are welcomed and treated on an equal basis.

So how do we do this?

Again, not an easy question to answer.

Or is it?

I ask you, who do you look to for advice and reassurance?

The answer is invariably the people around you, starting primarily with family, friends, and then colleagues.

And who in turn do they turn to. Who do they trust?

Guess what… their answer will be the same as yours.

We trust the people we know, more than those we don’t.

If we see a stranger asking us to trust them and trying to talk to us about personal matters then it is human nature to look for things about them which make us feel more connected.

If they look like us then this may make us feel more positive towards hearing them.

Likewise, if they sound like us. 

If they have the same accent, wear clothes that we like, or have a “kind” face.

All these things help us to be more receptive and will therefore increase the reach and effectiveness of the messaging and support being offered.

But ultimately the one thing that is most likely to make us listen is if we already know and trust the person who is trying to reach us.

It is said that everyone in the world can be connected by navigating just 6 existing relationships – 6 Degrees of Separation.

While I do not necessarily ascribe to the literal truth of this, it is undoubtedly true that one person making an effort to reach those around them can create a ripple effect which can spread throughout society. 

Not by breaking down “barriers”, but by failing to notice that they even exist.

So, my advice is this.

Instead of focusing on some, try instead to reach everyone, everywhere, promising the same standard of service and the same offer of hope, regardless of who they are or where they are. 

Then deliver on that promise. 

Treat everyone who reaches out as if they were one of your closest loved ones.

And if you have helped them, ask them to tell their own loved ones about it.

In fact, do not simply ask them but really beg them.

Not only will doing so allow them to build a valuable framework of recovery support for themselves, inside their own informed personal network, but it will also cross the only barrier that really matters. 

The barrier of trust.