We’ve used our webchat service to speak to 11,000 people in need

This is what we’ve learnt

Services for drug and alcohol problems only reach a fraction of those who need help.

They tend to be designed for people who have more severe problems. But we know there’s a lot of unmet need out there. Traditional services have also faced significant cuts, which is putting a lot of strain on an already stretched system.

Web chat is the start of a journey to fix that and make sure that everyone who needs us has access to help.

We started web chat in July 2017 and 11,000 people later it’s an important part of our UK-wide service.

We approached the new service with a test and change approach. The original team was experienced and comfortable engaging with people as if they’d walked into an actual service. Instinctively we set up web chat to be much more than a signposting service or a manualised search engine. We designed it as another way to talk to people who might be scared to reach out for help.

We learned a lot in the first year — it’s a story of steady growth. But even from the outset it was clear we were meeting significant and varied needs. We knew we were tapping into something important.

Web chat users

So who uses web chat? The answer is everyone. Parents, and lots of them worried about their kids. People in work with cocaine problems. People worried they were drinking too much. Professionals looking to see how to refer clients. And many others. No two people are the same, but there’s a common need out there for objective, warm, non-judgemental advice from a trained professional.

In the first few weeks we learnt many lessons about the people who clicked through to the service. Many were ‘treatment naïve’. They had no idea what help is out there, how to refer themselves and how much it might cost. Most were surprised and pleased that free, self-referral help is available from organisations like ours. We also got into the habit of nudging people to make referrals there and then, by telling them that we would wait on line to see how they get on. We walked them down the road a bit, and we were able to advocate directly on their behalf if they didn’t get a satisfactory response.

Reaching new audiences

We’re also engaged by many people who can’t or won’t use traditional services. Lots of people would find it hard to use local services because of jobs, caring responsibilities, or just because it’s not their preferred way to seek help. Lots of people don’t actually need ‘traditional’ services. They’re looking for a listening ear, support and advice. As the service has grown, people are using web chat for ongoing support and we’re beginning to offer set appointments so people can have scheduled time with a named keyworker.

From the outset we created tags for each chat. This gives us the ability to analyse who we’re working with and what we’re doing. We noticed early on that there are far more women on webchat than men. Women account for roughly 70% of all chats and 63% of chats where people are seeking help for their own drug/ alcohol use or mental health difficulties. This is the opposite of what we would normally see in traditional walk in services.

Modernising our service

Addaction’s web chat service is now open seven days and five evenings every week. The weekends and evenings tend to be quieter, but with more in depth conversations. We chose our opening hours by analysing visitor traffic on our website. To manage demand we have two professional advisors on call each day. We also have an on call supervisor to support and advise on particularly sensitive cases. Each advisor manages a maximum of two conversations at a time so that nobody feels rushed.

Chats can be quite challenging, and we’ve reached lots of people who are in a very difficult place in their lives. We’ve also been there at the start of thousands of individual journeys. If you’re struggling or need support, reach out for help.

Addaction’s web chat is a free and confidential service. It’s available at www.addaction.org.uk