Festivals, crisis beds and drug testing – How SDF’s Katy MacLeod spent her Summer

‘Free sun tan lotion? How about some drug information too?’

For many festival goers this is their introduction to Katy MacLeod,  SDF’s National Training and Development Officer , who is, herself, both a DJ and a major festival attendee. However, Katy spends very little time seeing any of the acts – as she’s been telling SDF’s media volunteer, John Thomson.

BBC Inside Out recently interviewed Katy about her work with Chill Welfare – watch the documentary here

In her ‘spare time’ Katy is Director of Chill Welfare, a volunteer-led social enterprise which came into being in 2015 in response to drug-related deaths at music and dance events, and the changing trends in the use of alcohol, club drugs and legal highs. Its aim is harm reduction – ‘to keep people safe by reducing the harm caused by alcohol and other drugs’ – but it also looks out for other forms of crisis intervention; be it mental wellbeing, sexual health or simply dealing with the effects of sun burn.

According to Katy, the trends this year have shown that there’s been an increase particularly in the use of ketamine and, to a lesser extent, cocaine but alcohol is still the most common. Crystal MDMA, ecstasy and psychedelics including LSD and 2CB also continue to be popular.  There’s vast range in the the purity of drugs being consumed, although for the majority its the often very high strength which brings in issues for dosing. According to The Loop, there has also been evidence of new psychoactive substances such as n-ethyl pentylone being sold as MDMA at several events, as well as samples of cement and anti-malarial pills being sold as ecstasy.

So what is The Loop?

It provides a front of house drug safety testing service looking at substances given to them by a range of people on-site, including festival-goers and welfare services, all provided under a festival ‘amnesty’. Once results are known and purity (or otherwise) is established, the user is provided with harm reduction information on the substance and given an opportunity to safely dispose of any other unwanted substances they may have.  Any remainder of the sample is later given to the police to be safely destroyed.

Like Chill Welfare, The Loop works with people who are experienced professionals, often chemists, who are also working on a voluntary basis and the results are of interest not only to the individual but also to the on-site medical and welfare services, and the organisers and police who can be alerted to any worrying trends. If a particularly dangerous substance is found, everyone on-site is alerted to potential problems through  a variety of communications. Katy believes ‘one of the most important factors about drug testing is that it gets people who would never otherwise engage with a drug service to speak to an experienced health worker who can give them some advice about how to reduce some of the risks.  Engaging with drug testing often means people use less substances overall, take fewer risks and some (approximately 10%) will choose to dispose of their substances.’

So why is there a need for welfare services at events?

‘A music festival is a community in microcosm’, says Katy, and, as such, it reflects the issues faced by much of today’s society – be it mental health or substance use issues. A festival offers freedom but whereas many people, maybe amongst the older generation, are more experienced and therefore better able to regulate their intake, for others the freedom a festival provides may lead them to use drugs for the first time – to experiment. For example, many among the 18-21 age group may well be used to alcohol or, indeed, cannabis, but a festival may be the first time they’ve experimented with other substances.

And that’s where Katy and her volunteers can help. ‘Amongst many other things we are targeting people who don’t have a lot of drug experience or potentially have misinformation about drugs.’

‘Some people may be using something for the first time or may not be accustomed to the strength of the drugs at a festival and therefore it’s difficult for them to know how much is too much. They are also more often to mix substances with alcohol or other drugs’

So that’s a lot of work for Katy and her volunteers. Volunteers? Aye, when last Katy counted, Chill Welfare had access to up to 130 of them and there’s probably about eighty of them working at any one time.

‘Many of them come from drug and treatment services and their eyes are opened to a much broader picture of substance use. Some are doctors and psychologists as well as support workers and a festival can give them an insight into the use of recreational drugs. Working in rehabilitation and treatment services means these professionals are seeing people who are using substances problematically and are concerned about their substance use and have, therefore, come forward for help in dealing with that concern. As a result, it is not common to see people when under the influence of substances and even less so to engage with people therapeutically when they are.’

‘At a festival, welfare staff are seeing people who are intoxicated and are often quite early on in terms of substance use, so this is quite a different way of working and provides a unique opportunity to engage early before their use becomes  problematic. This experience adds to their knowledge and expertise that they can take back in to their day jobs.’

Chill Welfare can also help if someone is experiencing a mental health crisis at an event. Katy found 87% of Chill Welfare’s interventions as a whole occurred while people were under the influence of substances and 31% of crisis interventions involved mental health.

‘Mental wellbeing can flare up at events for a variety of reasons as people are out of their normal routine, often not sleeping or eating as well.  For many young people, accessing our service at a festival may be the first place they identify that they are experiencing mental health issues and so part of our job is to signpost them to help in their local areas’

People can access the service by walking in themselves or being referred by on site agencies or indeed brought in by friends. Such is the friendliness of a festival that often it’s complete strangers, as well as friends, who bring folk forward for help, recognising that all is not well with a fellow festival goer.

Katy gets frustrated at the lack of opportunity for formal follow-up but says, ‘often we get people coming back the next year and they are looking really well and will report they have made changes to their substance use. One of the biggest issues we face in terms of referring people on is the major gaps in service provision for both mental health and psychostimulant drug use. The sad truth is people often get a more enhanced service at a festival than they do in the community and it would be great to see more funding and services for this kind of low threshold access ’

In acute cases, people are either discharged to their family or a local mental health service but for the vast majority, after some monitoring, observation and reassurance it is possible to support the festival goer to either return  to festival or go home.

Festival organisers welcome Chill Welfare’s input but it’s not a legal requirement to provide welfare and due to ever tightening budgets, they survive on very modest sustenance  from the events, therefore the majority of the work is done on a voluntary basis. Chill Welfare has no guaranteed funding and welcomes donations to keep the work going but this is seen by Katy as an advantage.

‘No funding means we have no targets – except to improve the health and wellbeing of festival goers. It’s a privilege to offer support, to reduce harm and preserve life.’

But of course, the main reason for attending a music festival is to see the music. How much is seen by Katy and the others?

‘Well, the volunteers do but I don’t. Well.. maybe, sometimes, a little music but for me the main thing is it’s about giving back and getting the opportunity to work with some of the most amazing humans who tirelessly give their time and care to thousands of people each year.’

Chill Welfare is always looking for people with experience of working in substance use, metal health or sexual health services  to volunteer their services.

Click here if you’d like to find out more about Chill Welfare and how to become a volunteer.

BBC Inside Out recently interviewed Katy about her work with Chill Welfare – watch the documentary here