Fight to save a generation

A lack of resources is hampering the battle to help drug-afflicted youths, writes Conor Kane.

COCAINE was the mot de jour during discussions about drug abuse last month when the death of Katy French dominated the headlines.

But, away from the front pages and out of sight of the bandwagon-jumping politicians, the battle against teenage and adolescent drug abuse had been continuing for years.

Out of the spotlight, professionals and volunteers work away in an attempt to restore some sanity to families whose lives have been shattered by drug misuse; to get young users’ lives back on the path to peace and contentment — and to rid communities of the scourge of the dealers.

Sometimes, as they cope with limited budgets and ever-increasing demand for services, they feel they are fighting a losing battle.

There’s light in the tunnel when an 18-year-old makes it through a treatment programme, stays on the wagon and gets employment and back into the family home where they can be cared for by loved ones. Those cases make it worthwhile.

Speaking to those who work on the frontline with young drug-afflicted people, the issues that come up again and again are; detox facilities and the lack of them; aftercare services for those emerging from residential treatment — often just an hour of counselling per week; and the need for structured accommodation for those who might not have the option of returning to families.

One such facility offering help to adolescent drug users and their families is the Matt Talbot Adolescent Services (MTAS) centre in the Douglas area of Cork.

Emerging from the auspices of the St Francis Training Centre and 20 years of voluntary service to the disadvantaged youth of Cork city, MTAS provides a range of treatment interventions to young males, mostly aged between 14 and 18 but with an ever-lowering age profile, from the city and county.

The services are offered at Trabeg Lawn in Douglas and at their residential treatment and rehabilitation centre in Cara Lodge, west Cork.

An extent of the problems facing this country can be gauged from the fact that three of the people who have attended MTAS recently died, while another 20 have served or are serving time in prison.

And that’s just from those who end up attending the service.

“Two areas that need to be highlighted,” says clinical director Geraldine Ring, “are the lack of adolescent mental health services and adolescent-specific detoxification facilities.”

Because of widespread poly-drug use, according to Ms Ring, the young people who end up in residential treatment generally need a medically managed detoxification.

However, detox facilities for adolescents are limited in this country, with few spaces available in Dublin but little or nothing elsewhere.

“With this cocaine stuff going on at the moment, there’s a lot of knee-jerk reaction. But under-18s do not take just one drug. They’re poly-drug users. You need different responses to it.”

As MTAS parents’ group representative Stephen O’Donovan puts it: “What doesn’t seem to be recognised is that addictions are formed in a young person and by the time they reach adulthood, they’re knee-deep in it. A service like this should nip it in the bud because it’s harder when they’re older. The resources aren’t being put in place.”

Minister of State Pat Carey recently visited MTAS and the staff and volunteers were impressed by his sincerity, but hope his colleagues will back up the words with funds.

With heroin spreading its tentacles throughout our cities and towns, counsellor Kate Gibney says “every young person coming in has had some kind of interaction with it”, and that’s yet another worrying trend to deal with.

Counsellor Jason Cowell says much of the media focus tends to be on weekend, “recreational” use — without highlighting the downside.

“People are taking drugs on Friday and Saturday nights, but they’re not talking about during the week when they’re coming down off it.”

The taboo is still there, with the frequent result according to Olive O’Riordan, who runs the Cara Lodge treatment centre, that parents generally have no idea how to deal with a drug problem when it hits their own family.

From where to go for treatment, to how to cope with their child’s behaviour to fending off the advances of dealers who may be looking for money.

Illustrating the resource problems faced by services like MTAS, last year, Ms O’Riordan was on her own dealing with 82 family groups who came into Trabeg Lawn to avail of the MTAS facilities, before another counsellor came on board. “I was only here three days a week — there wasn’t funding for any more.”

She is based at Cara Lodge, a specialist drug/alcohol residential centre that offers an intensive, structured programme.

However, aftercare for people released from places like Cara Lodge remains a live issue. Often they’re left to fend for themselves when it comes to accommodation, for a variety of reasons, making it easy to fall back into the addiction cycle.

Adults coming out of treatment facilities have an option of step-down accommodation or supported lodgings, but such a choice isn’t open to adolescents, leading to a high risk of homelessness.

The statement, “the country is over-run with drugs”, has almost become a cliché in contemporary Ireland, but the experiences of those at the coal-face suggest that it is a fact.

That’s why places like MTAS offer huge support to families, to educate them and to help get them through their teenager’s addiction.

But without the necessary government resources, too often it feels like an uphill struggle.

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