The treatment by some gardaí and the courts of drug users exacerbates their mental health problems, further stigmatising and marginalising them, a landmark study published on Tuesday finds.
The report, 'The Impact of Drug and Alcohol Related Deaths on Families', says in the cases of at least some of the deaths examined for the study, "the stigma and shame of drug use was a contributing factor in death by suicide".
Written by Dr Sharon Lambert of the School of Applied Psychology at University College Cork, in collaboration with the National Family Support Network, this is the first study in Ireland examining bereavement following drug-related deaths.
Some 17 family members, of eight people who died – four by overdose, three by suicide (all hanging) and one of liver disease – were interviewed. The deceased included seven men and one woman and ranged in age from 19 to 46. All were white Irish. Ten dependent children one grandchild were left behind. The bereaved interviewed here included parents, siblings and nieces of the dead.
“Life after bereavement revealed harrowing accounts of grief and trauma, and a clear sense of neglected and overlooked pain,” says the report. “Family members in this study reported disenfranchised grief where their loved ones’ death is not acknowledged or is devalued. There is stigma and shame associated with addiction.”
The report details the difficulties, compounded by shame, that families had in seeking supports for their loved ones experiencing addiction, as well as the financial and emotional burdens. While some had positive experiences with services, others’ experiences “generated huge levels of stress and anxiety”. For some, these “compounded what was already a very difficult situation”.
The tension between the health needs of their deceased loved ones, and the fact that for most their drug-taking had led to contact with gardaí and the criminal justice system, is explored.
One participant said their brother was “trying to get his life back on track but the guards wouldn’t let him alone”.
Four of the families interviewed “complained that their young people had a very negative relationship with gardaí and there was a failure to see their children as struggling or acting out due to poor mental health”.
One family member said: "It's not acceptable to me...they [gardaí] drive down the street and they are on the speaker: 'Good evening scumbags'... Do you think if this was Blackrock or Foxrock they would carry on like that?"
Another said: “..the guards having power trips and not having an understanding of the vulnerability of the young people because their emotional state is in a growth stage”.
A mother described the children’s court service as “unconstructive” saying it exacerbated problems by criminalising vulnerable young people struggling with addiction and mental health difficulties.
The families all reported they felt their grief was “disenfranchised” – where they felt less supported by priests, their communities and in some cases their wider families – due to the drug-related nature of the deaths. One said they felt the community was saying “you didn’t deserve any of your feelings... you didn’t deserve to talk about him, you didn’t deserve anything because he was a heroin addict or a junky or whatever they call them”.
The report makes eight recommendations, including funding specialised grief-counselling programmes for families bereaved by addiction; a national media campaign to challenge the stigma around addiction making clear substance misuse is a health issue; robust training and awareness programmes for front-lines services and professionals on the trauma and shame of addiction, and, a a mainstream service for people with a “dual diagnosis” of addiction and mental illness.