Hundreds join Wick support group for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction and mental health problems
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A support group has been set up in Wick for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction and mental health problems, in the hope that they can learn life skills to "get a bit of a future".
Panda's Pad has attracted more than 300 members online and is keen to hold physical meetings when circumstances allow. Ultimately the plan is to offer practical tips ranging from cooking and budgeting to music and art for people who have come through substance misuse or have experienced mental health issues.
Panda is the nickname of Doug Williamson (38), from Inverness, who moved to Wick just over 18 months ago and is a co-founder of the group along with Mellissa Stubbings (33) and her son DavidLee Anderson (19).
Mr Williamson is a former addict who has been clean for a year and a half. He believes healthcare services have suffered from underfunding and the group has arranged an online meeting with local MSP Maree Todd on Monday of next week.
He says he is surprised that Panda's Pad has generated so much interest in the space of a few weeks.
In time the group will look at holding meetings in community venues, depending on any limits on numbers due to Covid-19.
“We'd hate to turn people away – that's the last thing we would want to do,” Mr Williamson said.
“We're going to keep it as an online platform for the time being, but in the future we will look at getting it properly set up.”
The group has been in contact with other local support organisations, including No More Lost Souls, which has been pushing for a safe and secure psychiatric facility to be created in Caithness.
“There's a lack of almost everything up here," Mr Williamson said. "There is underfunding in so many different departments and we've got a few ideas of what we can do.
“I found it pretty hard to get an appointment with a psychiatrist in Inverness, but when I got up here I was quite shocked to learn that it would be 18 months.
“I've had people messaging me, calling me all the time. They've maybe got no-one to talk to, they just want to chat.
"It's not just myself – anyone can talk to anyone on it. We're hoping everyone will take care of each other.”
He revealed that his addiction problems began around the age of 13.
“I had to get out of Inverness – everything was going wrong for me down there," Mr Williamson said. "If I didn't make that decision it could have got a lot worse.
"It started off with drink, then it went to drugs – just anything I could get my hands on, really. I was in a really bad place. It got to the point where I had lost everything and I was looking at probably jail and stuff like that.
“I just thought no, I can't be living like that any more. I had to do something.”
Mr Williamson suggests that classes in coding, along with other constructive activities, could allow people to "get a bit of a future for themselves". He added: "They really don't want to go the way that I was going.”
He said: “The problem is these drug counsellors haven't really had that sort of lived experience where they've been through it themselves.
“I couldn't believe it when I spoke to the doctor and he had no idea about post-acute withdrawal syndrome. It's not their fault, it's underfunding.
"If the government aren't spending money training them, how do they expect anything like that to get better? I couldn't even get an appointment to speak to someone about it.
“How do they expect people to get well? How do they expect the area to get better? They're expecting people to take it on their own shoulders.”
Mr Williamson has problems with his physical health as a legacy of his former drug addiction.
“It's my own fault,” he said. “I was never one for the heroin and stuff like that – that wasn't my cup of tea. It was the crack that really messed me up. That's by far the worst drug I've ever taken.
“I've taken heroin but crack is far more addictive than anything else out there.”
Mellissa Stubbings believes there is a desperate need for the kind of support the group is seeking to provide. Her son DavidLee said five of his friends had died of overdoses in the past year.
“It's a beautiful place but so many people's lives are affected by drink, drugs and mental health,” Miss Stubbings said.
“We're thinking about a life skills place for people who, say, have left school early because they've had kids or they've got mental health or drug addiction problems, or people that have relationship problems. It can be really difficult to integrate them into school.
"So we would like a place where people who have had similar life experiences are comfortable coming together and you could do, for example, upcycling, cooking, art, music, or even get an old car and try to put it back together again – just things that we need for life.
“Budgeting is a huge thing too, because people with mental health problems can be quite impulsive with money.”
She added: “One thing I know about mental health is you need intelligence to survive. If you don't know about drugs, or what drugs do, that's how people end up dying. They get easily led along because they're gullible, they're vulnerable...
"It's not the people who take drugs that are the problem – it's the people who give drugs. It's a form of grooming.”
Panda's Pad can be contacted on Facebook.