Headlines: April 27th, 2005

Drug treatment and prevention services are overlooking the devastating impact that problem drug users have on their families, according to a research report published today. ‘Drugs in the family, produced for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, details the damage done to close relatives, including younger brothers and sisters who are at added risk of developing drug problems themselves.The study, by Marina Barnard, a Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Drug Misuse Research, is based on in-depth interviews with drugs users, their parents and younger siblings. It paints a picture of families being drawn into a downward spiral of problems ranging from stress and anxiety related health problems to stealing by drug users from family members to fund their habit.

Marina Barnard says that for more than a decade research has highlighted the dangers of young people being introduced to drugs such as heroin and cocaine by an older brother or sister. But, she says, those risks have not been properly acknowledged by policy makers or by treatment and prevention agencies.

The research, conducted in Glasgow, reveals how parents are almost always thrown into shock by the discovery that one or more of their children has a problem with drugs. It says typical first responses are confusion, panic and a sense of shame, which puts them off seeking help from outside agencies.

The study finds that family support groups are rarely accessed until families have lived with the drug problem for many years. Parents who did join local groups, however, said they found this valuable and that they felt less isolated. Some support groups are offering respite for families but, the report says, support groups are often short-lived as a result of being informal and self-funded.

Marina Barnard says the 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,” she adds.

She is calling for more effort to be made to help families when they first find out about the drug use and before the problems become intractable.