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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Normalising 'bad behaviour'

Watching the 'Binge drinking crisis' piece on 'A Current Affair' during the week (before you ask, I had to, it's part of my job!), many would believe that we now have more young people drinking than ever before and almost all of them go out every weekend and get absolutely smashed!

If you believe what you read in the papers and see on the TV (and why would you ever do that?), most young people have also used illicit drugs at some stage or another. In fact, all the evidence that we have says just the opposite. Most illicit drug use is now at lower rates in Australia than it was in the 1990s, with the exception of cocaine and ecstasy, and most school-based young people see drug use as pretty ‘uncool’. At a time when our younger generation are getting a ‘bad rap’ from the media it is important that we maintain some perspective.

When it comes to alcohol use, the latest ASSAD survey of school-based young people showed that we have growing numbers of students who classify themselves as 'non-drinkers' and the number of 'current drinkers' across all age groups has dropped dramatically since the mid 1980s.

Let's get something clear at the onset - I certainly don't think that everything is 'sunshine and rainbows' - we have problems, big problems around alcohol in this country, but I truly don't know how a young person who doesn't drink, or drinks very little, survives in the world today. They must feel very strange and certainly out of the loop, as the only representation of today's youth is a 'drunken yobbo' who is out to get as 'off their face' as possible!

The 'normalising' of 'bad behaviour' worries me greatly as the young people I meet in schools start to believe that drinking alcohol and getting drunk is just part of what all teenagers do. For some reading this that may have been their experience during adolescence and so this is not of great concern to them - some regarding teenage drinking simply as a 'rite of passage'. However, there is now an extra layer that is much more disturbing.

A couple of weeks ago I had just finished my presentation to a group of Year 10 students when a group of 6-8 girls approached me, some quite visibly distressed. Some of the stories I had told about young people who had got into trouble with alcohol, whether it be violence or sexual assault, and particularly the deaths had really hit home. One of the girls said that she had no idea that anyone could die from drinking. She had believed that the only real way to die from alcohol was in a car crash and that choking on your own vomit was a completely new concept to her.

I then asked the girls what harms they had observed when they had partied and their answers were terrifying. This was a group of 15 year old girls and they shared stories of seeing their friends vomiting (almost every week), passing out (most weeks) and having at least two of their friends being sexually assaulted whilst drunk. All of the girls had called for an ambulance at least once, with two of them in the group being hospitalised themselves, but none of them felt this was unusual or of great concern. When I told the girls that I never saw one of my friends unconscious after drinking when I was at school they were shocked, with one of them saying "But that's what happens when you drink ..."

For a 15 year old girl to believe that drinking to the point of passing out is 'normal' should be of great concern to all of us. For them to think that being hospitalized due to alcohol poisoning is the norm and that this is what happened to their parents and their friends is frightening!

The media bombards us with images of intoxicated young people (usually 18-25 years, not school-based young people) visiting nightlife hubs like Kings Cross with the sole purpose of getting as drunk as possible. These images are portrayed as representative of all young Australians and this is what is feeding this normalising of really dangerous behaviour. It is not normal to get so drunk that you can't walk, it is not normal to drink to the point of passing out in a public place and being hospitalized due to alcohol is certainly not the norm. This is extremely dangerous behaviour and results in a range of additional negative consequences, including death!

Over the years I have been asked to present at schools where young people have died. All bar one of these deaths occurred due to alcohol. Almost all of these deaths involved Year 10 students (15 year olds) and in the past few years, more and more of them involved young females. Almost all of them died with their best friends next to them trying to look after them, many of them, I'm sure, believing that what was happening was 'just what happens when you drink too much'.

Not all young people will drink to excess. Most will not use illicit drugs. Even so, we need to make sure that all young people, even those who don’t take drugs or drink alcohol, know what to do, if something goes wrong. They also need to be told that drinking to the point of passing out is not normal. Take the opportunity this weekend to sit with your child and discuss safety issues as well as the normalising of bad behaviour. It truly could make the difference between life and death.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Blue Star tattoos - another urban myth

I have been totally blown away by the number of people who have accessed my blog through the entry on 'Strawberry Quik' - the urban myth around methamphetamine supposedly flavoured to entice young people. The Facebook warning pops up occasionally via someone's page and thank goodness some sensible people are going to the web to try and access some accurate information.

Another urban myth that I thought was long gone was around the so-called 'Blue Star' tattoo.

Stories about drug manufacturers and dealers targeting very young children have been around for many years. The ‘Blue Star’ tattoo myth is possibly the most famous of these and goes back to 1980, although some say the story was circulating earlier than that. There was a time when I was responding to queries about this every couple of months, particularly in the late 1990s, but over the last few years it seemed to have gone quiet - that is until this week when I was contacted by a journalist who had heard from a 'source' that LSD-soaked tattoos were now available and being accessed by children in his area!

Back in the 80s this story usually hit the headlines after a local school or police station received a copy of a flyer (similar to the one above) warning that these tattoos were being given away to children in local schoolyards. In the 90s it became an email message that was received by a concerned citizen who then alerted the local media. Unfortunately, I have been unable to ascertain whether the 'source' that the journalist had received this information from had heard about this via an email or Facebook.
The information in the message can vary but usually says that the LSD can be absorbed through the skin by handling the tattoos. The tattoos are the same size as postage stamps and have been designed to attract very young people by depicting cartoon characters on them such as Superman. It goes on to say that these drugs are known to react very quickly and some are laced with strychnine. In fact, many children have already died from accidental ingestion of these tattoos. 
As with other warnings of this type, the message is usually signed off by a representative from a well-known government agency or hospital and to the na├»ve reader appears to be quite genuine. As I have stated before, these warning also stress that the reader must respond to the message as quickly as possible, i.e., a sense of urgency, and people receiving the alert are asked to pass on the email to as many people as possible.
Of course the information contained in the email is all completely untrue. In fact, if you take a little time to think about it, it simply doesn’t make sense. Why would drug manufacturers and dealers target the very young in the first place? They are most probably in the business to make money and would be looking for markets where they are able to do that without too much work. Primary school children do not usually have cash to spend on drugs. The whole idea of the dealers trying to get the very young 'hooked' on a substance so that they have a ready-made market in the future is quite ridiculous. How long are they prepared to wait? In fact, LSD is not even an addictive drug, so the story makes even less sense.
The concept of the 'drug pusher' is also quite problematic. It feeds into another myth, that of the evil drug dealer at the end of the schoolyard enticing young people in with his wares. The reality is that there is already a demand for illegal drugs and most people who sell them do not need to promote their product. In fact, most dealers would prefer to have a small number of regular 'clients' rather than a large number that they don't know particularly well. Having too many people knowing what you do increases your risk of getting caught.
The 'Blue Star' myth has been around for longer than most mainly because it has been regularly updated (in the 1980s the alerts claimed Mickey Mouse was depicted on the tattoos, in the 90s it became Bart Simpson) and also LSD is sold in the form of small paper squares, usually illustrated with a design of some sort, including cartoon characters. However, to the best of my knowledge, LSD is not available in either a tattoo or transfer form.

There are many theories about how this myth originated. One of the strongest is that it originates from a police report in the USA which referred to this marking of LSD as 'stamps' and noted that 'children may be susceptible to this type of cartoon stamp believing it a tattoo transfer'. Regardless of where it started from this type of story is very dangerous. It feeds into parents' fears and perpetuates misinformation.

Connect, connect, connect: How to best ensure your teen gets through adolescence as safely as possible

Last week a principal got up after a Parent Information Evening that I had just presented at his school and started by saying "I think I have learnt two main things as a parent tonight - 'delay, delay, delay' and 'connect, connect, connect'!"

I've been summarised many times before but I don't think it has ever been done so succinctly and in such a positive way. The 'delay' message is of course around trying to prevent an adolescent's alcohol use for as long as possible and is one that I have written about in my blog entries a number of times. 'Connecting' with young people is something I feel very passionately about and is the final tip I give to parents in my presentation. I ask them to think about the last time they really connected with their child, not just talked to them, but really spoke and listened – no other family members, no mobile phone, television or other distractions? For some of them, particularly the parents of adolescents, it could have been quite a while ago.

The relationship you once had with your child changes during adolescence - their brains are changing and as part of an evolutionary feature to get them to 'leave the nest', they seek greater acceptance from, and as a consequence, are more influenced by their peers and are more likely to fight with you about practically anything! You're not going to be able to stop this process - it's part of growing up ...

A few weeks ago I had a woman come up to me after a talk and tell me that she had great problems with me saying this as it was not her experience at all. She had four sisters and none of them caused their parents problems at all during their teens - they were 'good girls' as she so beautifully put it! I responded by saying that maybe that was how she saw it, maybe her parents saw it in a different way? Two days later I got a wonderful email from her after apparently speaking to her mother - it was titled 'Apparently we were horrible!'

Some parents are tempted to just throw their hands in the air at this time and say that it is all just too difficult - they're close to adulthood, just let them do what they want, it's easier than fighting. But it is during this time that young adults need their parents to continue to have rules, boundaries and consequences in an effort to keep them as safe as possible and also give them something to 'push' against. At the same time parents have to find a way of keeping connected with their teens. There is the temptation to become a friend, fathers to become 'mates' and mothers to be their 'girlfriend', but that is not a positive connection and certainly not something they need at this time - they have lots of mates and many girlfriends - they need a parent!

Trying to find that 'connection' - that activity that keeps you and your child communicating during this time - can be difficult but it is certainly not impossible. Last week there was a media article that discussed research from the Parenting Research Centre that looked at children that did not live with their fathers and found that it was "the quality of the relationship that matters, not the amount of time spent together." In these increasingly busy times I keep meeting parents that beat themselves up about not spending enough time with their kids, particularly if their teens are experiencing problems. It is important to remember that you can only do the best that you can do - just make sure that the time you do have together is quality time that means something to you and to them.

Here is my favourite 'connect, connect, connect' story ...

Amber approached me after a presentation to a group of Year 10s and was keen to tell me a story about her and her father. There was no request on my part for young people to talk about their parents - she just wanted to share! Every Saturday they would have 'coffee club' - this involved one of them choosing a coffee shop (a different one each week whenever possible) and then going there and sitting and having coffee and cake. It was there that Amber told her father about what had happened at school during the week and he told her about his work. Her enthusiasm for 'coffee club' was contagious and we had a long discussion about why it was so special. That evening I gave a Parent Night at the same school, finishing off with my slide about the importance of connecting. Afterwards a father came up and wanted to tell me about the special connection activity he and his daughter shared - 'coffee club'. When I asked him if his daughter was Amber in Year 10 he looked very surprised. "You have no idea how much your daughter loves you," I told him. "You really have found a way of connecting that will enrich both your lives forever." He burst into tears!

I tell that story at most schools I go to and it gets a wonderful reaction. Many parents come up and tell me what they do on a regular basis to maintain that important connection - some of these activities include simple things like walking the dog together, having a meal at a restaurant and watching a sporting event, to the more adventurous (and expensive) - going kite-surfing and having a shopping weekend in another city!

Connectedness builds resilience - this doesn't inoculate our children from alcohol and other drugs, but it sure helps them 'bounce back' if faced with problems and the positive relationship that develops helps to ensure that they are more likely to come to you should something go amiss in the years ahead.

We live in a very fast world that is constantly changing and it can be difficult to find the time to really connect with anyone, let alone our children. The next time your child wants to show you something, stop what you are doing and pay real attention to what they are saying and how they are saying it – we get so few opportunities to talk to our child in this way that we should grab every chance we get!

Friday, 12 April 2013

'Synthetic cannabis': What is it and should parents be worried?

Speaking at as many schools as I do each year, it isn't difficult to identify emerging alcohol and other drug trends amongst school-based young people. In the middle of last year growing numbers of students began to start asking about 'legal cannabis' and the questions haven't really stopped since then ... sadly, I've also been contacted by others who have used these products, sometimes only once, and have experienced significant problems, sometimes even resulting in hospitalisation.

Here is an example of one of the emails I have received, this time from a 15 year old young man who had heard me present at his school the previous day but was concerned that I wasn't covering 'synthetic marijuana' in my talks and wanted to share his story with me ...

"i have had a very very, bad experience with the synthetic marijuana known as kronic, which can be easily purchased ... by anyone ... Since my experience with the drug (first time ive taken any drug besides alcohol) i have had major anxiety which has started after a panic attack that came out of nowhere a month after the experience. I am very confused and am suffering any advice on how to cope with this would be greatly appreciated, but my main concern is that no-one else has to go through this when it could be prevented with knowledge ..."

The rest of his email discussed the fact that this was a legal drug. One of his friend's older brothers had bought the product at a local tobacconist and that was the reason he had made the decision to experiment with the product - it was legally available so it must be harmless! Of course, that just makes no sense at all - but to a 15 year old seeking peer acceptance and wanting desperately to fit in it makes perfect sense.

So what is so called 'legal cannabis' or 'synthetic marijuana'?

Since approximately 2004, 'herbal mixtures' often marketed as incense or air freshener have been sold across the world via the Internet or specialty shops as a 'legal' substitute for cannabis. Warnings on the products stated that they were not intended for human consumption, but at the same time they were promoted as a 'herbal' cannabis alternative undetectable by conventional drug testing. Researchers discovered that the labelling of these products was not accurate and that synthetic cannabinoids, not 'herbs', were responsible for the effects that users were reporting. The herbal ingredients cited on the packaging did not appear to contribute to the reported effects, and in fact were not even present in most of the products.

These products appear to have been available in Australia for some time via the Internet as well as through specialist adult stores (e.g., 'sex shops' or 'head shops') as well as tobacconists. It was not until early 2011, however, that the sales of one particular product 'Kronic', led to national interest in synthetic cannabinoid products, mainly due to their use by miners who were using them for their cannabis-like effect but wanted to avoid a positive workplace drug test.

Synthetic cannabinoids are often called 'research chemicals', produced in laboratories and not yet tested or approved for human consumption. The vast majority have only been recently synthesized and very little, if anything, is known about the risks associated with their use. What little we know is concerning, for example, it has been reported that one, HU-210, has 100 times the potency of THC. We know most about one particular compound – JWH-018, the chemical found in the original synthetic cannabinoid products.

It is believed that these compounds work on similar receptors in the brain as cannabis, so it is assumed that the risks associated with their use are similar to those for cannabis. Although some of the reported physical effects are problematic (e.g. loss of consciousness, increased blood pressure and heart rate), it is the psychological impacts that are the most concerning, with some users experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. There are many case reports now of users experimenting with these products that need to seek emergency medical assistance.

I do need to stress that we know so little about the compounds that are used in these products that it is extremely difficult to issue accurate warnings to users or potential users. It worries me when the more extreme case reports hit the headlines and these are portrayed as the norm - these products have been very popular and not everyone has been admitted to hospital as a result of their use! Any warnings issued should be based on evidence - anything less than that and it could blow up in our face! Young people don't believe much of what we say about drugs as it is - we don't want to make it worse. I believe that being honest and saying that these compounds are so new that we simply don't know what effect they will have is frightening enough!

Unfortunately, in Australia, there continues to be great confusion as to the legal status of synthetic cannabinoid products. Due to concerns over risks to public health and safety, fuelled by a rapid increase in popularity and use, Australian governments, both federal and state, responded by banning a range of compounds. The manufacturers responded by distributing new products that they claimed did not contain any of the banned compounds. Once identified, these compounds were also quickly outlawed, thus making these new products illegal. In turn, the manufacturers developed other new products claiming yet again that these were legal, and so it goes on. Whether these compounds are more or less harmful than those originally banned is not known.

Synthetic cannabinoid products being sold as 'legal highs' are similar to illicit drugs - little is known about what is in them or what the effects will be for individuals. As the companies producing these products try to stay one step ahead of government bans, they are potentially developing compounds that may possibly be even more harmful. Many of these compounds are so new that they have never been tested on animals, let alone humans. Those who choose to experiment with these products truly are being the 'guinea pigs' for the future.

We are not going to see these products disappear anytime soon - as fast as one is banned, another two appear on the market. Information is power - gather as much good quality, accurate and up-to-date information on the topic as possible and be prepared ...

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Separated parents with different views on alcohol: What can you do?

We know that parents are an incredibly important influence on their child's views around alcohol and when they set their minds to it they can make a real difference when it comes to their alcohol consumption. Read any parenting book and it will tell you that the key to success in any area is that there needs to be a consistent message on the issue. This is certainly the case with alcohol. It is quite clear that if a young person gets mixed messages from his parents then it's going to be far more difficult for him/her to develop positive attitudes towards alcohol.

Parents, if at all possible, must try to work out the rules and boundaries they both think are appropriate, as well as the consequences if these are broken. It is important that once the rules and boundaries are agreed on, that neither party 'gives in'. If there are differences of opinion regarding the provision of alcohol, these differences and each parent's expectations should be openly discussed, without placing the child in the position of conflict.

There are a number of reasons why one set of parents may have different views on the role alcohol should play in their teen's life. It could have to do with their cultural background, their involvement in team sports or a family history of alcohol problems, including dependence. Whatever the reason for the difference it can cause real problems for a family and it is important to try and deal with the issue as quickly as possible.

In broken relationships this may be even more difficult, as one parent is often forced to play the 'bad cop' role and parent their teen around alcohol, while the other is reluctant to enforce rules with their child fearing that this may jeopardize the relationship.

Last week I met with Ruth, a mother who were experiencing exactly this problem.

Ruth's marriage had broken down and she had her two children during the week and her ex-husband (a 'fly-in fly-out' father who worked on the mines) had them over the weekends that he was in town. She was finding it extremely difficult to control her teens (a 15 and 16 year old) when it came to alcohol and partying because when her husband was in town and supervising them, there were no rules. He wanted to be their 'best friend' and would buy them and their friends alcohol and could see no problems with this behaviour. Ruth was seen as being old-fashioned in her attitude towards alcohol by her husband and had made this clear not only to his ex-wife, but also to his children. She was being constantly undermined and had no idea where to turn next.

This is not an isolated case. There are parents across the country who deal with this issue every weekend.

As much as you may want your child to be your 'best friend' (really, if you do - what is wrong with you?), it is far more important to be a parent. Remember, your child gets one set of parents; they will get the opportunity to make many friends. There are many other ways of maintaining a positive relationship with a child rather than 'giving in' and providing them alcohol at an early age.

I wish I had a simple answer to this problem but when a marriage breaks down things are never going to be easy. That said, here are my three simple tips that may assist:

Get your facts together:  Before you take on your partner on the alcohol issue, ensure you've got your facts together so it's not an emotional tirade – a shouting match will not lead to a positive outcome. Arm yourself with good information that supports the reasons why teens shouldn't be drinking – attacking their parenting, or even worse, their own drinking behaviour is not going to go down well!

Discuss this away from the kids: Let's hope that it doesn't turn into an argument, but you can never be sure what will happen, so have the discussion away from your children. Do it when they're in bed or away from the house and choose your time carefully. Once again, set out your argument about damage to bodies and brains and also the fact that early introduction to alcohol is linked to alcohol problems later in life. Keep remembering – take out the personal stuff – that's never going to work ... 

Seek professional help: If you can't get agreement then it's a big enough issue to arrange relationship counselling, either via your GP, the local Family Relationship Centre, or a local qualified counsellor.

We now know so much more about the impact of alcohol on the adolescent than we did previously, particularly in regards to brain development. The research is clear that teens who drink are more likely to have long-term problems with alcohol. The very clear message that needs to be communicated to all parents is delay introduction to alcohol as long as possible.

About Me

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Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs' was released nationally in February 2009. With a broad knowledge of a range of content areas, Paul regularly appears in the media and is regarded as a key social commentator, with interviews on television programs such as Sunrise, TODAY and The Project.