Saturday, 18 April 2015

"What do you say to explain your choice not to drink alcohol?": A problem facing a growing number of young people

Going back to going to schools this week (after almost 10 days of absolutely no presenting - I didn't know what hit me!) was made so much easier due to the wonderful young women I got to meet. I was at two girls' schools in Melbourne and both were great. As always there were a wide variety of experiences in the room when it came to alcohol - at each of the sessions you could easily spot (as much as I say to the students that I don't want to know what they're doing and to use their best 'poker faces', they simply can't help themselves and give themselves away very quickly) those groups of girls who were heavily into the party scene, with alcohol obviously being very important when they socialise, but at the same time you can also see those girls who simply have no interest in alcohol whatsoever (and of course, there are all those in-between who may occasionally dabble but don't drink very much if they do).

But there was one girl yesterday who really brought a smile to my face when she approached me after the Year 12 presentation. She had heard me say (as I always do) that I don't drink alcohol and never really have and she was very keen to find out what I said to people when I was asked if I would like to have a drink. The question went something like this ...

I'm starting to go to a lot of 18th birthdays now and I'm increasingly being asked if I want a drink, not only by my friends but by people I don't necessarily know and even the parents of my friends! It's been really easy to simply say I don't drink and leave it at that up to now - I've never really been questioned about my choices before this year - but it's now getting really hard and very annoying! I have no desire to tell people, sometimes complete strangers, my life story - it's not their business why I don't drink but sometimes they just won't let you go with a "No thank you" - they want to know more. You said you didn't drink - how do you do it? What do you say to people to explain your choice not to drink alcohol?

I truly believe that a young person who chooses not to drink and then makes it very clear to their friendship group and everybody else that that is their decision is a pretty tough cookie! It is difficult to be a non-drinker in this country - as I always say, tell me somewhere in this country that you can socialise where alcohol is not front and centre. I find it incredibly annoying that most people assume that everyone drinks, and if you don't there must be something wrong with you. If I feel like that, how must a 15-16 year old adolescent who is struggling with working out where they fit in the world feel?

So what did I say to her? I'm at an age where I can be totally honest and with what I do for a living most people accept my answer which is that I simply don't like the taste. I don't like the taste of alcohol when you drink it and I can't abide the taste of it in foods, particularly cakes and desserts. Now that's not necessarily going to be the best answer for a young person. You can pretty well guarantee that there will be a follow-up comment like "Well you haven't tried this type of alcohol - it tastes really different" or "Alcohol is an acquired taste - give it some time and you'll get used to it" ... Honesty is usually the best policy but in this area, as I said to her, she really needed an answer that was going to stop people in their tracks.

Without doubt the best answer that I have come across in talking to young people, particularly those going to university (where there can be great pressure to drink), is "I'm allergic to alcohol!" Sounds ridiculous but I have met so many young people who use this and it works wonders. The only thing you have to ensure is that you have a feasible response if the person then asks you what happens if you drink ... stumble there and your story will fall flat.

I can't tell you how excited she was with my suggestion. It was almost like I'd told her that she'd won the lottery! She wanted to know if people really could be allergic to alcohol and I told her as far as I knew that was certainly the case (I had a friend years ago who would become terribly sick even being in a room where you could smell alcohol) and it was obvious that a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders. With that she literally skipped off with a couple of friends she had with her, with her last words to me being that she would contact me once she'd come up with her full story and let me know how she went with it. It was a really special moment!

It's really sad that we don't talk about those young people who choose not to drink. Last year an Australian study came out that I have spoken about many times that showed that we are seeing more school-based young people identifying themselves as 'non-drinkers' than in the past. Little research is conducted on why adolescents may make that choice, instead we tend to focus on those who get themselves into trouble with alcohol. That is why that a small UK study that examined the "lives and choices of young people (aged 16-25) who drink little or no alcohol" is so interesting. It's a few years old now but it's still a great little piece of research that gives an interesting insight into a group of young people that we rarely, if ever, talk about.

Some of the key points highlighted in the Summary document include the following:
  • choosing to drink little or no alcohol is a positive choice made for many reasons. For some young people the decision not to drink is central to their identity, for others it is 'no big deal', just one of many choices
  • major influences stem from observing people around them. Good parental role models play a part, as does witnessing the negative effects of alcohol on others
  • young people feel that alcohol education and alcohol messages are based on the assumption that young people will drink. They emphasise the importance of presenting not drinking as legitimate option to young people, parents and society more broadly
I'm certainly not about promoting abstinence when it comes to alcohol - but realistically we only ever talk about two options when it comes to drinking - 'responsible drinking' and 'risky drinking'. There is a third option - 'not drinking at all'. If our children choose not to drink alcohol they should be supported in that choice and the best way to do that is to make it very clear that choosing not to drink is absolutely okay and people who don't do it do not have three heads - we are completely normal!

It would be great if we eventually have a society where when someone declines a drink of alcohol, there are no questions about why that choice is made. Unfortunately we're not there yet! Making up a reason why that choice has been made (i.e., "I'm allergic!") is not ideal, but if it helps a young person get through a time in their life when there is great pressure to conform, so be it ...

Friday, 10 April 2015

"They're all on ice!": Is it really being used by everyone, everywhere and the 'root of all evil'?

Earlier this week Prime Minister Tony Abbott launched a new task force aimed at tackling "the growing scourge of ice," and was quoted as saying that "it's far more potent, far more dangerous, far more addictive than any previous illicit drug." He then went onto state that "... this is a drug epidemic way beyond anything that we have seen before."

Now I'm not going to dispute that methamphetamine is a serious issue in this country (I have already written a number of blogs on the topic including one earlier this year discussing a Herald Sun story called 'Ice Hits Schools' and another attempting to explain why this drug is so problematic) but we are now moving into a ridiculous situation which is bordering on moral panic!

We've seen the tabloid press go into overdrive on this issue. We've seen stories about footballers in regional Victoria using ice to "feel like Superman as they run out onto the field", "dealers giving out free samples to kids" in Moree, and even babysitters in Darwin being paid for their services with the drug! I'm not saying that there may not be an element of truth to some of these stories but I think the media really does need more evidence than "I've heard from people on the street ..." before making some of the claims that we've recently seen. It is not surprising then that many of the people I meet when I travel around the country are convinced that ice is being used by a huge proportion of the population, is absolutely everywhere and is incredibly cheap and causes otherwise law-abiding people to commit a range of crimes from burglary to murder.

I've really been debating whether to share the following story - it's most probably the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me - but it clearly illustrates a growing issue that I believe we need to start acknowledging ...

Recently I was asked to do an interview with SBS TV for their nightly news program - I agreed and arranged to meet the reporter and cameraman at the entrance to a park near my home. I live in inner-city Sydney and have done for almost 25 years. I'm always careful and have never really ever encountered a problem. I walked over to the park a few minutes early and stood and waited.

When I saw the man walk across the road at the lights I knew he was going to be trouble. Ignoring the oncoming traffic he stepped out in front of a car onto the road, slamming his hand onto the bonnet when the driver pulled up to avoid hitting him. For no apparent reason he then hurled abuse at a woman on the other side of the road. 

I followed the advice I give to young people in a school setting and watched where he was going in my peripheral vision but avoided any eye contact, hoping he would just keep walking. He didn't - he walked straight towards me shaking his clenched fist demanding to know what I was doing. He accused me of waiting to do a drug deal and wanted to know what drugs I had on me. I used every method I knew of to try to 'talk him down' - I didn't argue with him, I lowered my voice and tried to slowly move away from him but he had me pushed up to a fence and one fist centimetres up against my chin. I always say to young people, if in doubt - run away, but I couldn't even do that unless I physically pushed him and I truly believed at the time that that could have even matters worse. I was terrified! 

Amazingly I did manage to keep quite calm and kept repeating that I was waiting to do a TV interview and that the crew was on their way. Finally he dropped his fist and took a step back which gave me the opportunity to make a move away from the fence. I spotted the reporter (who had just pulled up in a car) and walked towards her asking her to get back into the car as quickly as possible. The man was following me and was becoming more agitated - she could obviously see the fear on my face and jumped back into the car and opened the door for me. I jumped in and locked the door just as the man smashed his hands onto the roof.

After the interview ended I went to the local police station to report what had happened. The police officer listened to my story, asked a few questions and took a few notes and then finished the discussion with the statement "They're all on ice in this area ...!"

Now the only part of this story that I haven't mentioned is that the man wreaked of alcohol. His face was only centimetres away from mine - he was drunk! Could he have been on ice? Absolutely, but how in the world would this police officer have known whether he was or wasn't? It was also highly likely that the man had significant mental health problems - he was obviously drunk but were there other issues at play as well? When I spoke to the officer I had made it very clear that the smell of alcohol was very obvious but that had been totally disregarded - it had to be ice - they're all on ice!

So what's my point?

Once the media has latched onto a drug issue they flog it to death - they did it with heroin in the 90s and they're doing it now. They focus on one substance and just don't acknowledge that there are usually other drugs in the mix. There are very few drug users who use one substance exclusively - they use them in combination. This is called polydrug use. It's so easy to explain unacceptable or bizarre behaviour by saying "they're on ice", but have they taken anything else (e.g., have they been drinking?) or could they have pre-existing mental health problems? No, we're simplifying complex problems down to a nice sound-bite - "they're on ice." Sadly, the result of this is that we're starting to see something I predicted a year or two ago - the use of an 'ice defense' in court cases, i.e., "the ice made me do it!"

As I see it, the major problem with how we're talking about methamphetamine or ice at the moment is that very few people are providing a context when they talk about the drug. We're hearing stories of individuals and communities that are being adversely affected by ice use but these are not told in the context of the wider population, i.e., methamphetamine use actually appears to be steady according to the national data that we have. The latest data doesn't support that there is use is 'spiralling out of control'! By all means talk about the problem (I'm not saying that there isn't one) but at the same time it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of the population (93% according to the latest NDSHS) have not used this drug and aren't likely to in the future. The press conference that we saw yesterday did nothing but terrify people - as much as there should be an acknowledgment of the problem, some words of assurance would have been helpful.

It's going to be interesting to see what actually comes out of the PM's task force. I hope we just don't see another mass media campaign telling us how scary ice is (I think most people, even the users of the drug know that!) - instead, we need to identify why certain communities have been devastated by this drug (usually those with high unemployment and a range of social issues - much like the American towns that experienced similar problems with 'meth' in the 90s) and then attempt to respond as best as we can. I know it sounds cynical but it's much easier for a minister to do a media event and announce the roll-out of another television advertisement, launch an accompanying website and associated material rather than actually try to really deal with the problem, i.e., provide such communities with the support they need to help solve a range of long-term social issues that often leads to problematic drug use ...

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Your teen has admitted using drugs and isn't going to stop: What do you do?

Earlier this year I wrote a blog entry discussing the issues around asking your child if they have taken drugs and they say 'no' - what do you do then? It was based around a story of a mother who had recently lost her son (apparently due to a drug overdose) and the fact that she had asked all the right questions around whether he was experimenting with drugs or not but he simply hadn't been honest. She called on other parents to keep having this difficult conversation "in a really non-threatening way so they feel like they don't have to lie."

As I said before, if you're going to ask questions about possible drug use there is usually a reason. If that's the case, you've got to be prepared for one of two answers. All is fine if they say they haven't taken drugs, but what if they turnaround and tell you they are? How should a parent best respond to that situation, particularly if they make it very clear that they're not going to stop?

Since then I have had a number of parents contact me saying that they had sat down with their son or daughter after reading my blog and had the conversation. Unfortunately they were not prepared for the answer. All had discovered that their teens were regularly using illicit drugs and, at the same time, had made it very clear to them that they had no intention of ceasing their use. None of these parents wanted me to use their stories in this entry per se, but they did agree to me taking key elements and putting them together to create a couple of examples that illustrated the problems they were facing. They are as follows:

Carol's daughter is 17 years old and has always been a bit of a handful. Rebelling since the age of 13, Joanne has always gone out with older boys and starting going to parties around that time. Although she was aware that her daughter was drinking alcohol, Carol hadn't even contemplated that Joanne could be using drugs and only asked to make herself feel better, convinced the answer would be 'no'! When she told her mother that she had been using ecstasy regularly for the past 12 months and had no intention of stopping, Carol was devastated. The media coverage of recent ecstasy deaths has not helped and Carol is frightened that her daughter just doesn't realize the danger she is putting herself into most weekends.

When 15 year-old Zach admitted to his mother that he was smoking cannabis regularly she was floored! Hilary had asked her son whether he had used drugs because she was becoming worried about some of the people he was hanging around with. He didn't just stop with tales of his pot use though, he then told her that he used LSD occasionally and was considering using other drugs like ecstasy in the future. Zach told his mum that he wanted to be honest and she needed to respect that. He also told her that he had done his research and knew what he was doing. He knew there were harms (although he believed that most were exaggerated) and he and his friends did everything to keep as safe as possible when they did use. 

In almost all cases there were a few common elements that need to be highlighted:
  • young people used the fact that they were being honest with their parents as a 'weapon', i.e., "I've been honest with you, now you have to accept what I'm telling you!"
  • teens told their parents that they had done their research and they knew what they were doing
  • parents were told that the risks around the drug or drugs that they were taken were exaggerated
  • most young people said that they (and their friends) did what they could to reduce the harm associated with their drug use, i.e., they took precautions to make their drug use 'safer'
  • parents knew little, if any, facts about the drug their child was taking and were extremely fearful about the health impacts (particularly the prospect of death) of use
  • parents of cannabis users were also much more likely to be pressured into allowing cannabis use in the home, thus providing a 'safe space' for them to use their drug of choice
Let's start this discussion by making it very clear that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to stop someone taking drugs if that's what they want to do ... unless a person actually wants to stop doing something, no matter what we do, nothing is likely to work particularly effectively. This is why most treatment centres won't take anybody who doesn't initiate the treatment themselves - trying to force someone to do something they don't want to do is likely to be a huge waste of time. That said, teenagers living at home with parents who love and support them are in a slightly different situation and I believe there are a few things that you can do to ensure that your values and views in this area are respected and adhered to by making a few boundaries and rules very clear ...
  • you've been asked to respect their honesty - it goes both ways - they need to respect yours! Tell them your concerns and make it clear that you don't support their decision. You are glad that they have decided to be honest and tell you what is happening and you hope that honesty continues but at the same time, they need to understand that you are going to be honest in how you respond to what they say and they must not dismiss your concerns in any way
  • most importantly, illicit drugs are illegal - if you can't stop them using drugs (which you can't - if they want to, they're going to find a way!), you can insist that no drugs ever come into your house. Make it clear that if you find drugs they will be flushed down the toilet - drugs are expensive and they certainly won't like that idea at all
  • your home cannot be a 'safe house' - this is particularly true if you have other children, particularly younger ones. Once again, drug use is illegal - if police come to your home for any reason and find juveniles smoking cannabis or the like, this is not just a police matter but also a community services issue
  • drugs cost money - make it very clear to them that you will not finance their drug use. Cutting off their access to cash is not going to be something they like but can be effective - if they want to buy drugs, they're going to have to find another way to do it. This is not about punishment but rather being true to yourself and the fact that you cannot support the choices they are currently making - you can continue to pay for other things they need but providing cash will be limited
  • if they believe that the drugs they are taking are not as risky as you think they are - ask to be educated. Get them to spend some time showing you the research they have found and why you shouldn't be as worried as you are. If you've got evidence that contradicts this, all well and good, but make sure it's from a reliable source - teens can smell a piece of government propaganda from a mile away!
The moment you find out that your child is using drugs, your relationship with that child changes. No matter what your views on drug use are there will be an elevated level of concern to some degree about the choices your teen is making. If it's not around physical or psychological health concerns, then it will be to do with the legal consequences of such activity. The most important thing a parent needs to do in this situation is to stay true to themselves - rolling over and being thankful that they were honest with you and then letting them do what they want in your home may work for some people, but all of the parents who contacted me were not comfortable with their child's drug use and were being bullied into being okay with it ... It is vital that you make it clear that you are not happy and then set some rules and boundaries about what will happen in the family home. You can't control what they do when they leave but you certainly don't have to support the choices they make that you don't agree with ...

Much of the fear for parents around illicit drugs is usually based on what they see, read and hear in the media. Young people are right when they say that many of the harms often reported are exaggerated. That's not to say that there aren't harms - it's just that sometimes we need to be a little more realistic about them and not rely on the media (that provides information in 'grabs' and deals in 'black and white' rather than shades of grey) when it comes to the 'facts'. 

Finally, let's not forget that most illicit drug use is experimental. Many teens dabble for a while and then move out of that phase of their life with few, if any, problems as a result. The reason that parents are so terrified is that this is not always the case - some young people don't make it through the other end and that is what makes this so very scary.

Monday, 6 April 2015

What do you do if you find out your child is using drugs?

Discovering that your child is experimenting with illicit drugs is every parent's worst fear. No matter what their attitude towards drugs, I have yet to meet a parent who is not, at the very least, extremely distressed when they find themselves in this situation. No matter how you may have prepared yourself (and to be quite honest, I doubt whether any parent spends too long thinking about such a possibility), it is always going to evoke a whole pile of emotions. Disappointment, anger and, of course, fear are most going to be bubbling to the surface and many parents are also going to start blaming themselves in some way.

Recently I was contacted by a mother who had just discovered that her son has been using cannabis. She explained the situation she found herself in and wrote "I am at a loss and not sure what to do or how to approach this, I am yet to confront him about it."

The most important thing to do is also the most difficult – don't overreact! Before you respond make sure you take some time to think through what you are going to do and how you are going to approach this extremely difficult situation. Talk to your partner and discuss where, when and how you are going to raise the issue. Those three elements (the where, when and how) are all equally important and will play a major part in the success of your strategy.

The best chance of moving this forward in a positive way is to sit down and talk to your child about your discovery. If you have planned the discussion well and don't overreact you may find that they are more willing to be honest and open in that area. There are no rule books when it comes to discussions like this but there are four key elements that may assist in making it more successful:
  • Show your concern – make it clear that you love your child unconditionally and that nothing will stop that. However, if they have been using illegal drugs they have broken the law and there will be consequences as a result
  • Choose your moment – make sure that you are calm and that your teenager is in the right headspace. Trying to have a conversation like this as soon as they walk through the door after school may not be the best time. You're also going to get a much better outcome if the discussion does not seem like an ambush
  • Recognise problems – the most important question you can ask your child is "why are you taking the drug?" If they say it gives them a good feeling or to have fun times with their friends, you shouldn't necessarily be doing cartwheels and saying that everything is now going to be fine, but it is much more encouraging than if they start talking about using it to satisfy a need, to feel better or to solve problems
  • Don't blame yourself – make sure you don't go down the road of thinking that you have failed as a parent. This isn't going to help anyone and is likely to cause even more problems between you and your child
Remember that being found out that you use illicit drugs is almost as confronting for the adolescent as it is for the parent. You may well have felt disappointment and anger, but it is highly likely that they are going to experience a range of emotions as well. The fear of disappointing and letting down their parents is very real for many and although you may think that they don't care what you think at this stage of development, we know that your opinion does count, no matter how much they try to tell you it doesn't!

If there is a silver lining to this type of incident it's going to be that a dialogue has started. Unfortunately, some parents never start talking to their children about drugs until something like this happens. If they get their response right and don't fly off the handle without thinking it through carefully there is the real possibility that some good may come out of it. For many young people, simply getting caught, being made aware of how their actions have affected the family and applying appropriate consequences is enough to change behaviour - but of course this is not always the case and further steps may need to be taken, particularly if they make it clear that they have no intention of stopping their drug use. So what do you do then? For my suggestions on how to deal with this take a look at my blog entry - 'Your teen has admitted using drugs and isn't going to stop: What do you do?'