Giving addicted teens a second chance at life

Detox and treatment centre puts order into the lives of teenagers and offers some hope of escape from chaos

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 01:00

From the four neatly made beds, a pair of runners placed together on the floor under the window sill and clothes hanging tidily in the open-fronted wardrobe along one wall, you’d never guess it is a teenager’s bedroom.

Nor is the living room downstairs, with its decorative, plastered ceiling and elegant large windows framing views of the flooded river outside, a typical hang-out for adolescents. But the sense of calm in this country house built in 1788, which later served as a convent, is exactly what its current young residents need.

In the corner of the living room, identical, blue-covered copies of Narcotics Anonymous stuffed into an array of cubbyholes are a reminder of where these teenagers are coming from.

This is Aislinn, the only residential addiction treatment centre in the Republic for adolescents as young as 15, up to the age of 21. And last year it opened the country’s first detox unit for that age group, Lá Nua, in an adjoining building.

Located on the outskirts of the Co Kilkenny village of Ballyragget, the complex is in a tranquil setting beside the River Nore. A “serenity garden” has been created in the grounds, with structures representing each of the “12 Steps” on the journey to recovery from addiction.

Managing chaos
The initial aim is to take the chaos out of the lives of the young people referred here. Although they come from a variety of backgrounds, each lifestyle has typically been one where night is day and day is night.

They are used to being constantly on the alert – for the next fix, the Garda and individuals to whom they owe money. Eating has generally been reduced to grazing on takeaway foods.

Last week the Aislinn centre opened its doors to a group of health professionals working in drug addiction in the southeast, along with The Irish Times , to give an insight into the process the young addicts undergo here.

They are referred from all over the country, through HSE services, the Probation Service, GPs and families.

The road to addiction usually starts with a can of beer, at maybe as young as eight or nine years of age, says Aislinn team manager Ian Doyle. “Some of that may be out of peer pressure, or they have observed it at home, and some of it has to do with advertising,” he says.

Next it’s vodka; then there are people who are happy to supply them with cannabis free of charge . . . and “it can go terribly pear-shaped from then on”.

Whatever the pattern of their substance abuse, Aislinn is seeing more and more young addicts with complex mental health issues, he reports. This raises the chicken and egg question: have these issues driven them to abuse substances or has the abuse scrambled their still-developing brains?

For some, their stay will begin in the detox unit, while others, who present with clear urine tests and are adjudged to be in “the right head space” for rehabilitation, go into the standard six-week programme. But all are enveloped in a welcoming regime of timetabled activities, with a sense of routine and community that may be alien to them.

Aftercare programme
Individual care plans are worked out for each with an eye on the next and often more difficult step of returning to where they came from. The residential programme may be just six weeks but there is a two-year aftercare programme to try to keep them on track.

Aislinn operates at full capacity most of the time, with 12 beds in the main house and another four in detox. As soon as a place is vacated there are other troubled youngsters waiting to fill it – the majority boys but girls attend too.

Criteria for admission include incidences of loss of control, increased tolerance of addictive substances and that the person appears ready for change, explains Emer O’Shaughnessy, who is in charge of assessments. Once a client is approved, “it is about putting a plan in place to keep them safe until we have a place in the house”.

When it is not practical to attend weekly pre-admission meetings in the centre, she links back to whoever referred the youngsters, to organise a “holding” arrangement.

Those referred for medicated detoxing in the nurse-led Lá Nua unit are assessed on admission by local GP Dr Miriam Hogan who, along with visiting consultant psychiatrist Dr Bobby P Smyth, supports Aislinn’s multi-disciplinary team of 22 staff and six part-time workers.

Detox can take between one and four weeks, depending on whether it is opiates, benzodiazepines or alcohol the person is being weaned off, and the process may be speeded up or slowed down according to the individual’s response.

Physical withdrawal symptoms vary but could include paranoia, hot and cold flushes, itchy skin, palpitations, night sweats and day sweats. “But because it is a medical detox, they are given something to make it as comfortable and as safe as possible,” says Doyle.

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