‘These conversations wouldn’t happen without conferences like this’ – My thoughts from HIT Hot Topics 2017

I’m just travelling home on the train from a fantastic few days in Liverpool. Since 2012 I’ve been going every year for the HIT Hot Topics conference and it’s something I really look forward to for many reasons which I’ll attempt to highlight here.

This year it got me thinking about what a privileged position I’m in to be able to attend such events on a regular basis and since starting the Facebook group it’s reminded me about how important networking in the harm reduction field is.

In 2012 I’d only just left the NHS to work for Scottish Drugs Forum, so getting to attend a conference like Hot Topics was a bit of a novelty after years of hardly being allowed to attend anything. I’d started using social media for work purposes towards the end of my NHS career when we began distributing naloxone and was using twitter more frequently to start making connections with some really great people – it was at my first HIT conference where I met most of them in person.

Since then I’ve been back every year and have managed to get myself a ‘job’ most years too, whether that be presenting on naloxone or drug consumption rooms, or chairing one of the sessions. This year I was attending as a delegate and took some time to consider what the conference means to me and why I’m drawn back year on year.

The conference actually starts the night before at the Harm Reduction Cafe. The cafe details are provided to delegates in advance and rather than it being a formal educational event, it’s a completely relaxed atmosphere in a bar where people can just get together and catch up or meet and be introduced to new people. The HIT O’Hare family make a real effort to ensure everyone is warmly welcomed whether you’ve known them for years or are meeting them for the first time. I feel privileged to call them friends.

This year was no exception and I caught up with old friends, colleagues and met others I’d been liaising with by email for different projects or sharing information. I also got a chance to chat to some of the speakers and hear a bit about what their presentations would cover. It’s a place where you know you’ll be able to offload some of the issues going on in your own area with many a conversation starting with ‘aw, wait ti’ a tell ye about this…’ (insert your own accent version).

The following day is the conference itself and this year was held at the stunning Lutyens Crypt.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking in to an environment where you know that every single person there is on the same page with a mutual understanding and a real sense of belonging (without sounding too dramatic). There’s lots of hugging (something I’ve gotten much better at over the years…I am no longer an ironing board) and a genuine warmth and friendliness from everyone there.

The programme is, as usual, packed with all kinds of talks by speakers travelling from far and wide to share their knowledge, experience and expertise.

It’s the type of conference where people spontaneously clap at statements made by speakers that reinforce the rights of people who use drugs. The things we all know and believe in but somehow when they’re stated in this environment people feel empowered, inspired and hopeful. Hopeful for positive changes in times where the negativity surrounding harm reduction can feel all consuming. It’s almost like people feel the weight of all the harmful practice, poor decisions and stigma witnessed being lifted from their shoulders. It’s certainly how I feel anyway, like I’m calling upon all the naysayers and people who’ve become ingrained in punitive practices to say ‘See! This is what I’m talking about!’.

I enjoyed all the talks this year and particularly liked the running theme through many of them about language. So important that people are mindful of the words they use and how they can contribute to the enormity of the existing issue of stigma and discrimination.

The breaks offer time to connect with people and exchange details. This year it was great for me when people who are members of the Facebook group came to say hello – I loved that. I also met some incredible new people, one of whom gave me a huge boost and probably didn’t realise the impact of her words. I won’t name her but she’ll know who she is if she reads this…she said (about the FB group I set up) “I think it’s an excellent idea. I’ve just been on a leadership course and it’s so great to see a female leading in this way.”

Such a nice comment and one I’ll refer back to in moments of self doubt. These are the kind of conversations that build people up and make them powerful in what they can achieve. These conversations wouldn’t happen without conferences like this.

As the conference comes to a close, people leave with a real buzz, feeling inspired and like their batteries have been re-charged, ready to take on the world. Despite the landscape appearing bleak at times, there is strength in numbers and that solidarity can only lead to positive change.

And the event does not end there. At night, there is a chance to celebrate, party and enjoy an awesome charity gig at the famous Cavern Club with live music. A perfect way to keep that conference high going on until the early hours (very early hours for some).

It’s so important that service providers see the value in allowing their staff to attend conferences like this and fund places for people who use drugs. The benefit not only to the individual but to the wider team and in turn the clients of the service is enormous. I don’t think the benefits of this investment can be underestimated.

Everyone should be afforded the opportunity to attend this type of conference, especially HIT Hot Topics. Hope to see you next year!

Meantime, please pop over and join the group 😉

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