Family Fortunes

This article is written by David MacKintosh, who was recently a member of Adfam's Board of Trustees. It is published in David's Global Public Health Network blog:

Over the last twenty years I have had the privilege to meet and work with several amazing parents and carers who have experienced bereavement because of drug or alcohol use. Many have sought to try and make a difference for others who find themselves dealing with similar issues. I have been in awe of the energy, drive, and compassion they provide, and collectively they have achieved a great deal in the UK. Some have successfully lobbied for improvements to laws and the closing of loopholes; they have provided better advice and education for young people and professionals; they have helped galvanise and support research; and, perhaps most often, they have helped set up services for those families also experiencing the harm and damage that drugs and alcohol can bring. When a family member, be it a child, sibling, father, or mother, has serious problems with alcohol or drugs, then the impact and harms spread far beyond them. It is often devastating and all too often people feel like they must deal with it on their own.

My interest in how we could better support families led me to become a trustee of Adfam nine years ago. Adfam is a charity that itself was established by a parent of a heroin user back in 1984. Since then it has grown to be a body of national significance, helping to positively influence policy and service delivery. This despite it only having a small core team and only ever receiving modest funding. Adfam operates on several levels – in its own words, it seeks to “Empower family members and carers, support frontline workers and influence decision-makers”. Adfam also produces and commissions important research, in addition to continuing work to support local groups and individuals.

Adfam has done a great job in promoting the needs, and also the value, of families. Its current campaign is entitled the “Forgotten 5 Million”. An accurate title when we consider that the experience of families, and the burden that they carry, is too often overlooked by politicians and policymakers. In fact, there appears to be a direct inverse relationship between the frequency with which politicians reference families in their speeches on the evils of alcohol, drugs and addiction, and the number of resources made available to support those who are experiencing these problems.

Research commissioned by Adfam shows that almost one third of the population of Great Britain had negative experiences related to the substance use of someone they know. This equates to nearly 16 million adults. Inevitably this creates a burden of mental ill-health, violence, abuse, financial strain, social isolation and, not least, stigma.

I would argue that we overlook the importance and value that families can provide, at significant cost to individuals, communities, and the State. There is good evidence of the value families can provide in helping drug and alcohol users overcome their problems – family members provide care for children at a scale the State could never replicate.

Adfam are campaigning for dedicated funding to support services for families, and to make it a statutory duty to provide this funding. It is asking government to consider the needs of families dealing with drug and alcohol problems, in relation to rules around access to state benefits. More also needs to be done to support children who are enduring these issues. Information on access to services, and the various support and treatment options available, needs to be made more accessible, and perhaps most importantly we need to improve understanding of the issue. This is not a problem experienced by only a small, marginalised group. It is the experience of millions. There is also a pressing need to consider the issues of drug and alcohol use, mental ill-health, and poverty in a more holistic manner. Recognising the interrelationship of these problems, rather than dealing with the problems in isolation, provides the opportunity to maximise return on investment and provide families with effective help. To the benefit of us all.

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