One in 10 used drugs in past month
In the past 30 days, one in 10 Irish children has used an illegal drug . Over two-thirds of 16-year-olds have been drunk in the last 12 months, more than the European average . ..
The statistics (right) come from Investing in Parenthood - To Achieve Best Health for Children, a report commissioned by the health boards and partly funded by the National Children's Office and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs.
The reason some children succumb to drug abuse and addiction, while others do not, is about far more than the quality of parenting. No matter how good a parent you are, you may still lose your child to addiction because you live at the wrong address. "If you are living in a place awash with drugs, your children are at far greater risk," says Paul McArdle, a UCD-educated consultant psychiatrist and researcher based at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
McArdle's recent study of teenagers in six European cities, including Dublin, found a strong mother-child bond and/or having two parents in the home are protective factors against drug addiction in Rome, Bremen, Groningen and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
However, Dublin is the stunning exception to the rule. In the capital, the high availability of drugs counteracts protective factors. "If the place is awash with drugs, having a strong bond with the mother or having two parents makes no difference," McArdle says. Living in a stable, middle-class area where the availability of drugs is low to moderate gives parents the best chance of protecting their children from drugs. "If you have a good relationship with your kids, and your kids are reasonably well-behaved and doing well at their studies, they are unlikely to use drugs. And if they do experiment with drugs, they are unlikely to get into difficulties. Children who become side-tracked by drugs are those who feel that the conventional avenues in life are blocked to them. They see an alternative lifestyle and they grab it," he says.
Drug education programmes in schools are "missing the point", he believes. Children and adolescents need education, not drugs education, if they are to see themselves as having future goals that are worth trying to attain. "To prevent drug abuse, we should be providing supervised, empowering and healthy activities for young people. This is especially important for those who are not academic, to find some career path open to them," he urges.
CELIA Keenaghan, project manager of the Investing in Parenthood report, agrees: "Young people tell us they don't want more anti-drugs leaflets coming in to their schools. What they need are community-based activities with creative approaches to give them something to do other than drugs. It's a cop-out for adults to say 'don't drink and don't take drugs' when the sole source of entertainment in the community is the pub."
Parents who have the luxury of choosing where they live and who have resources to keep their children busy with extracurricular activities, have the best chance of guiding them away from drug problems, believes Steve Rowan, director of the Rutland Centre in Dublin. But no parent should be complacent. "There is no such thing as a totally safe neighbourhood any more," he says.
Irish children are starting to abuse from as young as eight, even in what are perceived as safe, middle-class areas, he says. In the Rutland Centre's area of Knocklyon, Dublin, 12-year-olds are abusing alcohol and solvents. Ecstasy use in the State tends to start around the age of 16 or 17. A & E units in cities routinely see teenagers from stable homes who have collapsed from overdoses of alcohol and ecstasy.
"We don't really understand why some people get into deep trouble with drug abuse and others don't. There may be a genetic factor that is more powerful than all our good advice. For some people, the pleasure they feel from chemicals is a magnet that's stronger than all the constructive, sensible advice that parents, educators and public information programmes provide," Rowan says.
Many teen addicts come from homes where there is significant misuse of drugs, particularly of alcohol. "All parents want to prevent drug abuse in their children - even those parents who are giving a bad example," says Rowan. "Parents don't see the connection. They don't think that frequent heavy drinking at home will encourage kids to use solvents at age 11."
Even when parents are exemplary, peer pressure to abuse alcohol and drugs may be stronger than parents' influence. Some adolescents have a powerful ability to draw others into their world, and your child may be unable to resist, Rowan warns. Substance abuse is endemic, so whether your child becomes best friends with someone who uses drugs may be a matter of luck. While parents worry most about drugs, underage drinking (which is illegal) is actually the first sign of trouble.
Children who have their first drink before the age of 14 are 10 times more likely to develop serious substance abuse problems than those who wait to have their first drink until they are age 21 or older. Most adolescents who end up in treatment centres have started with alcohol and moved on to solvents, cannabis and ecstasy. They then "graduate" to smoking or possibly injecting heroin.
For parents, the message is harsh: there is no guarantee against a child becoming a substance abuser, no matter how good the parenting.
Medical Matters, Lifelines and Taking the Medicine will resume on the Health page next Monday