In Dorset, over 3,000 people are living with alcohol dependency, and while overall substance abuse statistics are not complete, the percentage of hospital admissions due to drug misuse are higher than average for teens and youth.
Substance dependence is a treatable condition with specialist therapy and clinical support, but when it goes unmanaged it reproduces itself, often through its deep and pervasive effects on families. A new project in Dorset is taking aim against this cycle.
Safeguarding Families Together
A new pilot project, Safeguarding Families together, is placing further focus on the theme of improving childhood safety and improving mental health outcomes using whole family approaches that incorporate the needs of children living in households affected by substance abuse, parental mental ill-health, and domestic abuse.
This project will serve communities in the Weymouth and Portland area of Dorset, where it will aim to help families recover sustainably as a unit, while also keeping families together throughout the treatment process. The stated goal of the project is to support efforts toward making Dorset the best place in the UK to be a child.
Substance abuse, addiction, and mental ill-health are understood by mental health professionals to often be “family diseases.” What is meant by that is that while these conditions can spring from internal factors like genetics or brain chemistry, many of the risk factors associated with these conditions are external in nature.
Adverse childhood events (ACEs), insecure parental attachment, and the financial and material conditions that are often experienced in households affected by substance abuse and other untreated mental health status are highly significant factors in predicting later health and life outcomes. Research has been in for decades, raising a unanimous voice that children who are raised by a parent with an active SUD, a significant childhood ACE are far more likely to experience the development of later:
- Disordered substance use by young adulthood
- Depression, trauma and PTSD
- Hindered social development
- Lower socioeconomic status
- Academic difficulty
- Dysfunctional family relations
Childhood stressors and additional complicating, co-occurrent factors that can be linked to unmanaged parental SUDs greatly increase the risk of these unwanted outcomes. Stressors such as marital discord, residential instability, and other family-related stress can be understood as part of the network of family unease that parental substance abuse easily reinforces. Separation of children from their caretakers is of course an extremely traumatic experience and is unwise in many cases of what are otherwise treatable parental conditions.
As a ‘family disease,’ it is also widely theorized that SUD recovery that incorporates the full family system is not only possible, but also poses a unique opportunity to reflect and heal the ways in which disordered family dynamics, such as those between children, older siblings, and parents may produce and reproduce poorer health outcomes. In the end, working together, with the help of a specialised professional that is sensitive and responsive in their interventions to both child and adult needs can produce better, longer outcomes, and safer communities.
What to Expect from the Project
Councillor Andrew Parry, Portfolio Holder for Children, Education, Skills and Early Help spoke on the project, explaining that ‘ Multi-disciplinary teams made up of children’s social workers and adult specialists in mental health, substance misuse and domestic abuse will work alongside families.’
Capable and sensitive frontline staff representing the project will assess adults within target households for health concerns that may benefit from treatment, and provide specialist help while skipping over routine wait times and appointments.
Some programs will be individual one-on-one work with members of the psychosocial support teams, while others will involve group engagement with family members or peers. Safeguarding Families Together will be centred on recovery and rehabilitation, not familial separation. Victims of domestic abuse will receive specialised help and support, while perpetrators will also be supported and educated through the programme.
On the subject of substance abuse, families will undergo screening, testing, and treatment prescription of evidence-backed therapies aimed at reducing alcohol and drug abuse. The holistic and interdisciplinary teams will include members who are able to directly assess for SUDs and arrange medical and therapeutic support for those who need it.
A cornerstone approach of this program is a therapeutic modality known as ‘motivational interviewing’ – a technique that develops empathy within interpersonal structures and nurtures self-belief in the individual’s capacity and agency for positive change. Every family unit has powerful strengths in addition to shortcomings, and emphasis will be placed on identifying and leaning into those supportive and productive dynamics to produce families that are strong from their own foundations.
Parental Substance Abuse in Dorset
The council is hoping for a successful outcome, and if that is seen the program will be expanded to the whole of Dorset.
Presently, treatment statistics for Dorset parents and adults living with children are considerably higher than the country-wide average. If this project can truly make headway against the remaining households that continue to be affected by substance abuse, the county may truly become a haven for youth.
Treatment and specialised help are the most effective tools against substance abuse and mental ill-health cycles. 2020’s surveys of adults in substance abuse treatment in Dorset paint a promising picture for families:
- 19% of adults in treatment are parents living with children (compared to England’s 18% average)
- 24% of adults in treatment are non-parents living with children – eg: guardians, older siblings, grandparents (compared to an England-wide average of just 6%)
However, the truly good news is that hidden in these statistics is a much higher treatment engagement rate for adults living with children in Dorset. For example, consider the percentage of alcohol-dependent adults living with children that are currently in treatment in the county and elsewhere:
- Dorset: 375 out of an estimated 645 (42% untreated)
- England: 25,435 out of estimated 120,552 (79% untreated)