We must stop looking at addiction as a moral failing

Public debate is needed on best ways to intervene in chaotic lives of addicts

Every person who is addicted has a negative impact on four others, usually loved ones and family members

Every person who is addicted has a negative impact on four others, usually loved ones and family members

 

People suffering from addiction are among the most stigmatised in Ireland. Sadly, addicts are still seen as morally flawed and reprehensible in a way that often prevents them from seeking help. Addiction, whether it be to alcohol, drugs or gambling, probably has an impact on every Irish home in some way.

Statistics relating to alcohol alone are frightening. For example, Health Research Board figures tell us one in four deaths of men aged between 15 and 40 are due to alcohol, as are more than one in 10 cases of breast cancer. 

According to the National Drug-Related Deaths Index, from 2004 to 2013 there were 6,002 drug-related deaths. 

These figures do not even begin to take into account the toll on families. At a conservative estimate, every person who is addicted has a negative impact on four others, usually loved ones and family members.

It is a problem being taken seriously by the Department of Health. Minister of State for National Drugs Strategy Catherine Byrne launched the largest ever public consultation in mid-September in advance of the new national drugs strategy, due to be published next year.

Compassion and education

As part of the contribution to the much-needed public debate, rehabilitation organisation Cuan Mhuire, in partnership with the School of Health and Social Sciences at the Institute of Technology Tralee (ITT), is holding a major international conference in Tralee on November 4th, featuring experts from Ireland, the US and Europe. Cuan Mhuire is Ireland’s largest provider of detox and rehabilitative services and was founded by Sr Consilio in 1966. In a way, this conference represents the 50-year journey travelled by both Sr Consilio and Cuan Mhuire.

She started with a simple impulse of compassion for the men who were wandering the roads from county to county due to alcoholism, and her first outreach took place in a dairy. Over the years, Cuan Mhuire has expanded to five residential centres, three residential transition centres and a training centre, and is now to the forefront of looking at international best practice and research.

Cuan Mhuire centres are constantly full and have a waiting list. The programme is loosely based on Alcoholics Anonymous, but also on the insight that, given the chaotic, disorderly nature of most addicts’ lives, four pillars are necessary for recovery: work, spirituality, recreation and therapy. They are partly funded by various local and national agencies, but resources are always inadequate to meet the crushing level of need.

Relapse

Cuan Mhuire’s residential programmes range from 12 to 20 weeks. There is a two-year aftercare programme but, as Sr Consilio puts it, many get lost during this period.

For example, many people who are addicts are homeless entering rehabilitation and often have nowhere to go afterwards. The stress of being on long housing lists or living in a hostel with other people who are still actively using drugs or alcohol leads many to relapse.

Sr Consilio is speaking at the conference, but so are major international figures such as Alexis Goosdeel, director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. International cooperation is vital in order to see what interventions are working best elsewhere and whether they can be adapted to an Irish context.

Although addiction is no respecter of class or position, there are areas that are particularly scourged by the impact of illegal drug use. Prof Raymond Kinsella, who assists Cuan Mhuire with applied research, believes that schools are a vital line of defence in preventing the cycle continuing to a new generation.

Overcoming the odds

But according to a second-level teacher in one of these drug-blighted areas in Dublin, it is an uphill battle. She described to me a highly intelligent boy who left school at 14 despite the best efforts of the school. His father was a major drug pusher and was in prison.

His mother was an active drug user and the house was so chaotic that someone died of a drug overdose in this boy’s bed. Despite repeated appeals by the school to social services, they deemed the family to be functional enough not to merit the boy being taken into care. This story is all too typical.

It would be easy to blame social services, but they are human beings who are often overwhelmed by huge caseloads of families with seemingly intractable problems.

This teacher recounted success stories of young people surmounting incredible odds and going on to further education, particularly through access programmes. She noted that the new Irish, particularly from Eastern Europe and Africa, tend to escape the pervasive drug culture, not least because their families are functioning well and are focused on getting a good education.

In the same school, a guidance counsellor had been returned to subject teaching, due to the educational cutbacks that continue to plague disadvantaged schools in particular. Schools cannot function as a counter to the surrounding drug culture without guaranteed, ring-fenced and targeted resources and accountable inter-agency work.

Unfortunately, the problems caused by addiction tend to be ignored until they impact on the middle classes in the form of crime. But to ignore the agonies caused to children, families and children is to contribute to them.

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