Listen to this page
There are a lot of myths about alcohol and other drugs. Knowing more about drugs and how they impact the young person can help you better understand how to support and empathise with them. This also helps you anticipate the kind of difficulties a young person may face, particularly those who are finding change difficult.
Accessing evidence-based sources to find out the most accurate information about drugs and their effects is one way you can help. Check out YoDAA or the YoDAA Self-assessment Tool or The Other Talk (for parents & carers).
Understanding a young person’s drug use
Young people use drugs for all sorts of different reasons, some are not so obvious. It is useful to understand that there is almost always some ‘positive’ function or meaning for a young person’s use of drugs.
This may be:
- To provide pleasure or enjoyment
- Enhance a social activity
- Offer relief from physical or emotional pain
- Relieve anxiety, emotional pain or low mood
Whilst there is no single cause of problematic substance use, there are factors that make young people more vulnerable.
Such ‘risk factors’ include:
- Experiences of abuse or neglect
- Absence of family supports
- Family violence
- School exclusion
For young people in out-of-home care a number of these factors can be present.
Alternatively, there are ‘protective factors’ that will increase the young person’s likelihood of avoiding problematic substance use.
These are things like:
- Strong and supportive relationships with caregivers
- Positive peer networks
- Meaningful engagement with school or work
- Safe and secure housing
Check out a more comprehensive list of risk and protective factors here.
There are also things in a young person’s life that maintain their reliance on drug use, often hindering their ability to change. These are often referred to as ‘perpetuating’ factors or ‘drivers’ of substance use.
'Perpetuating factors' or 'drivers' of substance use
Safety issues such as involvement in unhealthy or exploitative relationships, or experiences of abuse or violence.
Stability and Security such as lack of income to meet basic needs through legal sources, or unstable or insecure housing.
Activity and Participation such as lack of connection to community or engagement in positive social activities, lack of helpful options for risk taking or sensation seeking, or feeling a sense of control and expertise through substance use.
Relationships and connections such as sense of belonging and status through substance use, lack of connection to peers that don’t use drugs, positive attitudes towards substance use by family and peers.
Psychological and physical states such as lack of helpful strategies to manage difficult or distressing emotions or pain.
Identity and motivation such as low self-esteem and belief in themselves, sense that things won’t get better, struggles with identity and negative view of the world.
It can be difficult to sustain change for a young person if these issues remain a part of their life.
That’s great, but what things actually cause a young person to use on a particular occasion?
Triggers can be events, people, places, smells, thoughts or feelings which precede an occasion of substance use. Sometimes trigger are not even known or observable to the young person or those supporting them. For example, young people who have experienced trauma often live with a constant subtle pressure of anxiety and feel the need for relief leading them to use substances. Alternatively there may be a specific trigger such as an anniversary of a death, or a fight with a partner.
A young person can explore their triggers by thinking about what was going on before they used the substance. A functional analysis is a tool that can assist in unpacking all of these factors and assist the young person to understand the function, purpose and place of their drug use within their life. It explores their triggers, looks at their actual behaviours as well as the positive and negative consequences (immediate and longer term) of their use. This might be a tool you feel comfortable using with the young person in your care.