Drugs and young people

Drugs and young people

What exactly is a drug?

This is a question parents are faced with when attempting to talk to their adolescent children about drug taking. The expression ‘drugs’ generally refers to the taking of illegal substances plus solvent abuse. The use of illegally acquired prescription medication is also included. The commonly-used drugs are cannabis and ecstasy. Heroin is a problem largely confined to the Dublin area.

Drugs are a rite of passage through adolescence for a substantial number of teenagers and a way of life for an appreciable minority. Many teenagers will quickly point out to their parents that smoking and drinking cause more harm than taking a few ecstasy tablets or that nicotine is more addictive than heroin (it is). Parents may need to look at their own substance abuse habits before they alienate teenagers with an unfocused attack.

What is the incidence of ‘drug’ taking among young people?

It is not known how many people abuse drugs in Ireland and, of these, how many are adolescents. Opiate addiction is, perhaps, the best documented, as users are more likely to have a need to present for treatment. Over 7,000 people have attended the Drug Treatment Centre in Dublin since it was founded in 1980. Approximately 2,000 attend per year, the majority of whom have a problem with opiate addiction. Cork and Limerick are the cities with the highest incidence of drug use outside the Dublin area.

Young Irish people appear to experiment with fewer illegal drugs than their European and US counterparts; however the use of legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) is higher. Irish people spent 2,000 million a year on legal drugs - 19% of total consumer spending. How much is spent on illegal drugs is not known.

To put this in perspective, there are approximately 95,000 alcohol dependants, 840,000 nicotine dependants and 22,000 people at risk from tranquilliser dependence in Ireland today. Young Irish people would appear to have as much to fear from legal drugs and medicines than illegal drugs, yet alcohol and tobacco are culturally acceptable and do not receive the same attention from the media, politicians, anxious parents or GPs.

Why do adolescents take drugs?

The reasons stated by adolescents for taking drugs, again in order of frequency include:

  • To feel big, show off and look grown up.
  • For kicks, for fun, to feel good.
  • Because friends do, it's trendy.
  • For the experience, out of curiosity.
  • To escape problems.
  • To calm nerves.

This emphasises the importance of peer group pressure as a reason for taking drugs and also that teenagers take drugs for the pleasure they get out of them. Any attempts at drug education need to address these areas.

Where is my teenager at risk of being offered drugs?

A 1994 UK study on where teenagers are approached for sale of drugs lists the following places in order of frequency - ‘street’, ‘party’, ‘discos’, ‘school’, ‘public house’ and ‘coffee bar’. It is disturbing to note that ‘school’ is a source of approach and becoming more common. In a replica study in 1989, it was the least frequent place of approach for an adolescent to be offered drugs. The same study found that opiate abuse was mentioned less often in 1994. This supports the view that those who inject heroin are out of favour on the adolescent drug scene. However, heroin abuse remains a significant problem in certain socially deprived areas.

What can I do to ensure that my teenager doesn’t take drugs?

It is important as a parent that you talk to your teenager about drug taking. Many parents are ignorant of teenage culture and the jargon surrounding drug use, so much so that they find it difficult to talk with their adolescents. However, if you don’t talk to your child someone else will.

The common stereotype of the junkie who is horribly thin and strung out may be the parent’s image of a drug taker but the reality is that the majority are ‘normal’ adolescents. For Irish parents the most common drug their adolescent child is likely to experiment with is ecstasy - available in every small town disco. Being able to recognise the signs of drug taking is an important place to start. As a parent you also need to confront your attitude to legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, both of which are much more of a health menace than illegal drugs. You should also consider the following:

  • Set an example by your own responsible use of alcohol and tobacco.
  • If prescribed drugs need to be taken by a family member, explain why and treat them with respect by keeping them in a safe place.
  • Beware the ‘take a pill’ mentality - this may encourage the attitude of seeking solutions in drug taking.
  • Acknowledge conflicts about attitudes to drugs and discuss them.
  • Talk about feelings - yours and your teenager’s.
  • Accept the way your teenager says they feel.
  • Offer security while they become independent - it inspires confidence.
  • Be positive, even if you find out the worst. Flying off the handle is not going to solve anything and may result in your teen not telling you the next time.
  • Expect the best - in some families children are presumed guilty until proved innocent. It sets them up for failure that is easier to achieve than success.

Many attempts have been made to educate young people not to use drugs, yet their use is increasing all the time. A new approach has been suggested whereby we should assume that many ‘normal’ young people will inevitably experiment with drugs and that they expect to do so with minimal risk.

Instead of targeting this group in an attempt to stop them taking drugs (which hasn’t succeeded), it is suggested that we adopt a secondary prevention approach through ‘harm reduction drug education’, the goal of which is to reduce the number and severity of casualties.

Such a shift of approach may, however, bring dangers such as giving the wrong message to young people. Any such change would need to be both well planned and evaluated. As with any educational programme about drugs it should not be separated from the wider context of personal and social health.

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