Gay men have welcomed an innovative online scheme – launched as a joint project by the charities Terrence Higgins Trust and London Friend – helping people in rural areas to break cycles around sex, drugs and alcohol.
This week, leading charities Terrence Higgins Trust and London Friend have launched the first online counselling services for gay and bisexual men who want to make changes around drug and alcohol use and relationships. The services are available now on Friday/Monday, a website offering information about sex and drugs for gay and bisexual men.
The groundbreaking project was awarded funding by the Public Health England HIV Prevention Innovation Fund.
It is hoped the digital services, including an online support group and one-to-one virtual counselling, will make it easier for men in rural areas to take the first steps into regaining control, in a safe and non-judgmental space.
Hailing the innovative step, James explained how chemsex affected his work life, social life and sexual health, and how services like this can help men who are worried about their drug and alcohol use.
“I’d only experimented with drugs occasionally though my early 20s, but when I was 27 I was diagnosed with HIV, and after that I didn’t have sex or take drugs for three years,” said James.
“When I was eventually ready to meet people again, the way people were meeting had changed; apps made it easy to meet people and more people were taking drugs.
“I’ve always tried to play it as safe as possible, but last summer it went apocalyptic. I went to a party, which I don’t like doing, and I felt really anxious. I took drugs there and ended up having an anxiety attack.
“From there I was taking drugs every weekend. I’d meet people in groups and it would go on for days. Drugs would help me relax, but they also gave me an artificial sense of confidence which could be harmful. I had more STIs more frequently and I knew I could do a better job at work if I’d been more alert and healthy.”
Today, James has received the support he needs, is back in control and has welcomed the fact that more people will now have access to online counselling and online support group services, wherever they are in the country.
“I want to stay away from this behaviour, and I think peer support is a good way to do this – speaking to people who are empathetic and have experience of what you are going through. Doing it online means that it’s not constrained by timings and locations.”
The new online services will be delivered by video chat software Zoom, via the Friday/Monday website at www.fridaymonday.org.uk.
Working in a similar way to Skype, people will be able to see their counsellor on the screen, or up to 10 people in a support group, while they talk through their issues around drugs or alcohol.
Explaining the need for online services, Cary James, Head of Health Promotion at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “We’re delighted to be working with London Friend to deliver this important and much needed project.
“Mainstream services often don’t meet the needs of gay men whose drug and alcohol use is linked to their sex life. This can leave them feeling isolated. These online services will reach out to these men and provide specialist support from people who really understand and who will not judge, helping people to get back in control of their sexual and mental health.”
Monty Moncrieff, Chief Executive of London Friend, said: “If you find yourself stuck in a cycle, these online services can help you understand the role that drugs and alcohol are playing in your life and give you the knowledge and tools to make the changes you want.
“Wherever you live, and whether you want to cut back a bit, be safer or quit entirely, we’ll be there at the click of a button to support, help and guide you through it.”
James added: “My advice for anyone who finds themselves seeking support is to identify why they are doing it. For me it was because I felt like I’m damaged goods and, as I don’t go out much anymore, it was a fast track way of meeting people. It’s all very well people telling you to stop, but first you need to know why you’re doing it in the first place. That’s where projects like this come in.”