Because if they don’t tell you about their situation, things can get worse.
How do you set down strong boundaries whilst keeping communication open?
It’s a difficult challenge that most parents face as their children get older and start gaining independence – and taking more risks.
Well, the same conundrum exists more broadly in society where stigmatisation and criminalisation of drug dependency leads to many young people “going it alone” and trying to white knuckle their problems with drug dependency rather than getting help earlier.
I'll come back to the parenting but this will help illustrate my point.
THE MISMATCH BETWEEN DRUG DEPENDENCY AND DRUG TREATMENT
When someone is dependent on a drug they rely on the substance despite whatever problems or dangers it may present to their lives. This is why drug dependency is such a concern: people will continue using even if it puts them at great physical and mental risk.
Statistics on young people’s drug use in Australia have yielded worrying results1: around one in five sixteen-year-olds use illegal drugs, thirty percent of the population will try cannabis before the age of fifteen, and around five percent of eighteen to twenty-four year-olds are considered to have a cannabis abuse disorder. On top of this, stimulants (or “uppers”) are used by twenty-seven percent of people aged between nineteen and twenty-four, and four percent of that group are considered to have a stimulant abuse disorder.
In 2006 an Australian Government report found that thirty-eight percent of Australians aged fourteen and over had used an illegal drug at least once. The report also found that marijuana was by far the most commonly used illegal drug, with thirty-four percent of the population having used it. According to the report, eighteen to twenty-nine year-olds encompassed the majority of recent drug users: thirty-one percent had used at least one type of illegal drug within the last twelve months.
The report also noted that in 2004 approximately nine percent of people aged fourteen and over had used methamphetamines at least once, with most users (sixty-six percent) saying they took the drug either at home or at a friend’s house.
All this research goes to show that drug use – and more importantly drug dependency – is a major area of concern in Australia.
In 2007, the USA's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) national survey found that 23.2 million people aged twelve or older required treatment for drug or alcohol dependency – yet only just over ten percent of them received treatment.
YOUNG PEOPLE AND CANNABIS
Users between twenty and twenty-nine years of age require the most treatment for diverse drug use, according to data collected in 2004-05.2
However, cannabis is by far the most popular drug used by young people in Australia. Sixty-three percent of treatment for cannabis in 2011-12 was for clients between the ages of twenty and thirty-nine. Disturbingly, eighteen percent of those treatments were for young people aged between ten and nineteen years-old.
Treatment for cannabis (as the principal drug of concern) varies, although counselling is the most frequent form of treatment used. Traditionally, it was the main drug of concern we treated at Noffs treatment centres, alongside alcohol until recently when 'ice' has begun taking over. Withdrawal is common for users, with symptoms like anxiety, irritability and depression high on the list. These concerns are treated with withdrawal management, although this form of treatment is only used in thirteen percent of cases. Finally assessment, information and education as a form of treatment are used in twelve percent of cases. (These figures are also almost identical for treatment where cannabis is an additional drug of concern.)
ARE WE ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS?
Drug use is a complicated issue. It involves different types of use (bingeing, occasional or continual) and different understandings and misconceptions. It can be hard, for example, for people to understand drug users and their dependency, or to wrongly misconstrue them as simply “druggies.” Likewise, it can be hard for drug users to see the dangers of their dependency, and it is common for them to have a false understanding of their control of the situation.
Another important factor to consider is why a young person uses drugs. Is the young person experimenting? Doing it for fun? Or are they feeling pressured to fit in or have a need to escape reality?
When it comes to young people and drugs, we need to look at why they are using in order to best help them overcome their dependency.
YOUNG PEOPLE NEED TO FEEL SAFE
I like to talk a lot about the important role that good parenting plays in the treatment of drug dependency in young people.
When parental support breaks down (either due to relationship problems or parents being completely absent), young people feel threatened and vulnerable.
It becomes impossible for them to trust others and that is a huge hurdle to overcome when convincing them to seek treatment for drug dependency.
Making these people feel like failures or criminals only exacerbates the issue.
As a society and as parents we need to promote an open and honest dialogue with our young people about their problems with drugs and create environments where they feel safe from persecution and prosecution.
THE IMPLEMENTATION GAP
Even though the Australian Government spends nearly $2 billion every year on drug policy, the vast majority of that is spent on law enforcement costs.5
We spend about ⅓ on treatment of drug dependency than we do on drug law enforcement.
What message does that send to young people? In short, it says you’re more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than a loving, caring and supportive environment that can help you improve your life.
Imagine what we could achieve if we reduced the $1 billion yearly drug law enforcement costs?
The paltry sum we currently spend on treatment, prevention and harm reduction could be increased three fold, and we already have decades of evidence to show that this works.
It just doesn’t sound as dramatic in a political speech.
Policy makers have to start looking at this situation pragmatically and rethinking the “war on drugs” approach, because all it’s doing is engendering fear and mistrust amongst our nation’s most vulnerable young people.
On the other hand it would be fair to say that regulation needs more research behind it in terms of how it could be implemented.
And for parenting, there is nothing more vital than communication.
That doesn't mean you need to be lax about your child's drug use - you need to draw up good boundaries and stick by them.
But never prioritise discipline over communication - that can be detrimental. Find the middle ground where your child can feel that they can approach you with their concerns and help them.
Remember, if it ever gets to a point where you or they need help, you can call us on 1800 151 045
Counselling is always good idea and the earlier the better.
Back to how we handle drug use as a society - again, law enforcement alone doesn't work. Never has.
So what alternatives is society left with? Well there's decriminalisation, regulation and legalisation - I discuss the differences in another blog.
What we do know is that if we spent less money and time on law enforcement and more on counselling and treatment, the outcome would be far different.
It would save money but more importantly, lives.
1. STATE OF AUSTRALIA’S YOUNG PEOPLE REPORT STATISTICAL SNAPSHOT by Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Department of Education
2. AIHW 2007. Statistics on drug use in Australia 2006. Cat. no. PHE 80. Canberra: AIHW.
3 and 4. Alcohol and other drug treatment services in Australia 2011–12 by Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; Canberra; Cat. no. HSE 139
5. Government drug policy expenditure in Australia - 2009/10 by Authors: Alison Ritter, Ross McLeod, Marian Shanahan