Study Reveals The Devastating Impact of Problem Drug Users
on Brothers, Sisters and Parents
Apr 25 2006
"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
- 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
- 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
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."