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Family Study Reveals The Devastating Impact of Problem Drug Users on Brothers, Sisters and Parents

EMaxHealth by jrf.org.uk
  Apr 25 2006

Family and drugs

"For ten years our life got kinda took away from us. I felt we were in a big hole hangin' on to the sides... I was powerless... I couldnae change it, I couldnae make it better." Mick, drug user's father, interviewed in Glasgow.

Drug treatment and prevention services have concentrated on problem users while overlooking the serious damage caused to their families including younger brothers and sisters who are at added risk of developing drug problems themselves.

Drugs in the family, a new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, exposes the devastating impact that an individual's heroin or crack-cocaine habit often has on other family members. Based on in-depth interviews with drugs users, their parents and younger siblings, it reveals how families are drawn into a downward spiral of problems. These include:

  • Stress, anxiety and related health problems through trying to protect the family member from harm including bitter family rows over how best to respond.
  • Parents lacking the time or energy to support their other children as their child with the drug problem increasingly absorbs their attention.
  • Stealing by drug users from family members to fund their habit.
  • Brothers and sisters losing a valued relationship with a sibling whose drug obsession has made them self-centred, argumentative and unreliable.
  • Routine exposure to drug-taking at home. While some brothers and sisters in the study were deterred by what they saw, others had been encouraged to experiment themselves.

Marina Barnard, a Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow's Centre for Drug Misuse Research and the study's author, said: "Research for more than a decade has highlighted the danger that young people will be initiated to drugs like heroin and cocaine by an older brother or sister, yet the risks have not been properly acknowledged by policy makers or by treatment and prevention agencies. Some younger brothers and sisters in this study saw their siblings as sad, angry people who were being destroyed by their drug habit, but others had either become curious enough to experiment with drugs themselves or been deliberately encouraged to try them."

The research in Glasgow found parents were almost always thrown into shock and disarray by the discovery that one or more children had developed a problem with drugs. Typical first responses were confusion, panic and a sense of shame that deterred them from seeking help from outside agencies.

As unsuccessful attempts to cope led families into deeper difficulties, younger brothers and sisters were increasingly drawn into the conflict: mediating between their parents and their drug-user sibling, and trying to prevent goods and money being stolen from the house.

Family support groups were rarely accessed until families had been living with the drug problem for many years. However, parents who had joined a local group said they found it valuable and felt less isolated. Some support groups offered breaks for families to obtain some much-needed respite from the problems at home. However, the report points out that support groups are often short-lived as a result of being informal and self-funded.

Marina Barnard said: "The problem drug use of a close family member creates enduring stress, anxiety and conflict that have long-term consequences and severely affects the health and well-being of parents, brothers and sisters. Yet this study underlines the real difficulties in trying to help families, given that they tend to focus on the drug-affected child, rather than the negative effects on themselves.

"We need to respond to the challenge with compassion and imagination. Policy makers must give careful thought to ways in which better family support can most effectively mesh with existing treatment and prevention services. More effort could be made to help families when they first find out about the drug use, before the problems become intractable. Mentoring programmes could also play a part in enabling younger brothers and sisters to resist becoming problem drug users themselves."