10 February 2022

How an apprentice is improving access to drug and alcohol support in the Tamil community

National Apprenticeship Week (7–13 February) is a week-long celebration of apprenticeships in England. The theme this year is ‘build the future’, reflecting how apprenticeships can help individuals to develop the skills and knowledge required for a rewarding career, and help organisations to develop a talented workforce.

To mark National Apprenticeship Week, WDP Merton Service Manager Helen O’Connor and former apprentice Elil Jeyakumar share how Elil has helped the service to break down the barriers to drug and alcohol treatment in the local Tamil community.

Helen O’Connor, Service Manager at WDP Merton

When WDP became the service provider for Merton in 2018, one thing we were keen to do was to respond better to local needs and deliver more culturally informed support to residents from Merton’s diverse communities. A particular area of focus was how the service engaged and worked with residents from the local Tamil community.

It can be difficult for professional interpreters who are not experienced in the delivery of drug and alcohol services, to understand our processes or find words to translate some of the vocabulary that we routinely use. Even when interpreters can support assessments and 1-2-1 keyworking sessions, their presence may be a barrier to an effective working relationship between a practitioner and service user. This is especially the case if there is a different interpreter in each session, or when the interpreter is from the service user’s community, if they do not feel confident speaking freely in front of them.

We wanted to find new ways to address barriers and to provide more choice in the solutions on offer, including groups and peer support. Using the apprenticeship levy scheme, we recruited an apprentice practitioner who could speak Tamil. Their role focused on helping us to understand how we could adapt to better engage with Tamil-speakers and their families, improving their experience of treatment.

Elil joined us in 2019. He has made such a difference to our local service and has now successfully completed his apprenticeship. We’re delighted that he has stayed with the service, becoming a fully-fledged recovery practitioner and a vital and valued member of our team. I’ll let him tell you more about his experience with us!

Elil Jeyakumar, former Apprentice Recovery Practitioner

During my undergraduate years and leading up to my apprenticeship, I worked with community organisations that were tackling the issue of uneven access to health and social care (and statutory services in general) for BAME, migrant, and refugee communities. It was identified that an inclusive approach, which takes into consideration the language, cultural and socio-economic barriers faced by service users, was necessary to promote and sustain continued engagement from them. The problem was that not many organisations or services were putting in place mechanisms to ensure this approach was being taken.

It was very interesting to me that WDP Merton was trying to implement measures for certain areas of improvement that were discussed in the community organisations I worked with, such as the language barrier and making information available in first languages. As a bilingual person, I applied for the apprenticeship wanting to contribute to implementing these changes.

I had no previous experience of working in the sector, however, I gained the necessary knowledge, training, and experience at WDP Merton through the apprenticeship programme. There were lots of opportunities made available to me to design and deliver group programmes and also produce and translate information in the Tamil language.

Over the last few years, I have had many Tamil-speaking service users, who had either no fluency or very limited fluency in English, with whom I was able to foster a very good and trusting relationship. We have even had service users help their friends and peers refer themselves to the service. I believe this goes to show the effectiveness of the work we have done, and I hope this sets a good example and will be followed by other services when and wherever possible.

A service user’s perspective

“When I came to WDP I had so many problems. My son wouldn’t speak to me, I had no family, I had nowhere to live. Then I lost my job because of drinking. I had lost so many things in my life because of alcohol. I had the shakes every day. When I first went to WDP, they helped me get some blood tests and to join a group, and then I had 10 days in detox. After that, I felt so much healthier. I came every week after that to see my keyworker and had a weekly Tamil group with other men. I liked that in the group we could talk and help each other change our lifestyle. There are so many things WDP helped me with, it totally changed my life. Life is going great now.”

This service user found housing and reconnected with his adult son. He also met an advisor at WDP Merton’s Job Centre satellite who helped him access training and find a new job. He has finished his treatment journey with WDP but has supported and encouraged other men from his community into treatment with us.

If you are interested in apprenticeship roles at WDP, visit our recruitment portal to view our latest vacancies and sign up for email alerts.

You can also download our WDP Merton Tamil service leaflet on our WDP Merton service page.