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What factors leads male young people aged 11 – 18 years old into taking illicit drugs in the UK?
Statistical data has shown that an increasing number of young people aged between 11 and 18 are using illicit drugs either experimentally or habitually. This study examines a small sample of males aged between 11 and 18, and through unstructured interviews ascertains the reasons for their drug use. The study aims to identify ways in which prevention could be better facilitated for this particular age group.
In men and women the misuse of illicit drugs has increased dramatically over the last 50 years (Zerbe, 1999). Research has shown that the particular age when young people begin using alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs is a predictor of later alcohol and drug problems. For example, 40% of young people who begin drinking at age 14 or younger develop alcohol dependence, compared with 10% of youth who start drinking at age 20 or older. (Ericson, 2001. In Laursen and Brasler, 2002: 181). It has been long-established that users of one drug are more likely to use other drugs than non-users (Gove and Geerken,1979) and that the use of correlates with the onset of psychiatric symptoms. Contemporary research suggests that amongst girls, tobacco use is often a strong indication that other drugs will be used in the future, and in males, alcohol use has been described as a ‘gateway to other drugs.’ (In Laursen and Brasler, 2002: 181). Reasons for young people experimenting or regularly using drugs are varied, and include pressure from peers, stress and emotional factors, a desire to break convention, and the process of individualisation. Research into the consequences of divorce on young people has shown that negative consequences are most common shortly after a parental divorce (Frost and Pakiz, 1990). While research by Laursen and Brasler recorded the following responses as to why drugs were used:
- “to numb the pain of abuse and neglect,”
- “to be accepted,”
- “peer pressure,”
- “to take control of my own life,”
- “for relaxation and pleasure”
- “to chill”
- “to improve my self-image”
- “because I’m curious, stressed, or bored”
- “to assert myself.” (Laursen and Brasler, 2002: 181)
Social work practice is reliant upon research in order to find the most effective ways to deal with social problems (Chavkin, 1993). The National Institute of Mental Health ( 1991) proposed that social work research is invaluable because it ‘describes the work domain of social work as touching on a multitude of human problems that inflict pain and suffering on millions of individuals and families.’ (Chavkin, 1993: 3).
As children develop into adolescence, they experience a series of dramatic changes, both physical, psychological , and psycho-social. Independence and identity are sought – often through the need to belong to a group or more general movement. Substance use increases in adolescence (Johnston, O’Malley, & Bachman, 1998. In Laursen and Brasler, 2002: 181) as ‘smoking, drinking, and other drugs become a way to appear mature while fitting in with peers.’ (Laursen and Brasler, 2002: 181).
A qualitative research method was decided to be most appropriate. Darlington and Scott (2002) highlighted the three most prominent research methods as being:
- In-depth interviewing of individuals and small groups
- Systematic observation of behaviour
- Analysis of documentary data (Darlington and Scott, 2002: 2)
In-depth interviewing of individuals was chosen for this project, and it was proposed to interview five individuals between the ages of 11 and 18 within the young people’s service, using a random sampling method. As suggested by Darlington and Scott (2002: 3):
‘Research methods such as in-depth interviewing and participant observation are particularly well suited to exploring questions in the human services which relate to the meaning of experiences and to deciphering the complexity of human behaviour.’
This approach also offers far more potential for establishing a greater rapport with the individual, where a more trustworthy and detailed account of personal experiences might be achieved – as opposed to observation techniques which might only offer relatively superficial or ambiguous evidence of inner thoughts and feelings. The interviews were taped; this ensured that the information was accessible, and facilitated more accurate and reliable research. For ethical reasons it was necessary to obtain the consent of the individuals being interviewed. It was made clear to participants that their information might be reproduced and possibly published as part of the study. It was necessary to obtain their consent prior to conducting the interview in case they objected to any later use of the information. In cases of younger respondents the permission of their older siblings or parents was asked prior to the interview. As the sample was chosen randomly the researcher did not have any influencer over the identity of the interviewees. Ten males were selected, of the ages: eleven, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen. All respondents were interviewed in their homes by trained interviewers. Data was collected primarily through interview, and also through self-reports which aimed to establish the presence of any emotional instabilities.
The present study made use of the interview format undertaken by researchers in the study by Vandervalk et al (2005) into the relationship between family problems and the behaviour of adolescents. In the 2005 study researchers used a shortened version of the General Health Questionnaire, which measured the extent to which psychological stress and depression had recently been experienced. On a 4-point scale, the respondents indicated the severity of their symptoms (e.g., feeling tense and nervous, feeling unhappy and dejected) during the past 4 weeks (1: much more than usual to 4: not at all). This was replicated for the current study. Youngsters indicated on a 4-point scale whether they had considered committing suicide during the last 12 months (1: never to 4: very often) (Diekstra et al., 1991).
To distinguish between internal and external factors the 2005 model study used an
‘Adolescent Externalizing Behavior’ approach that measured the following:
- Risky habits, measuring the degree to which adolescents were involved in risky or unhealthy behavior. Self-report data on the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and soft drugs were used. On 8-point scales, youngsters indicated if and to what extent they smoked, drank alcohol, or used soft drugs
- Delinquent behavior was assessed as the number of delinquent acts the respondents reported over the past 12 months. The delinquency measure consists of 21 items pertaining to 3 types of delinquent behavior: violent crime (e.g., “Have you ever wounded anyone with a knife or other weapon”?), vandalism (e.g., “Have you ever covered walls, buses, or entryways with graffiti?”), and crime against property (e.g., “Have you ever bought something which you knew was stolen?”).
- Educational attainment of adolescents and young adults was assessed by asking youngsters about their current level of education or about the highest level of education achieved, in case they no longer participated in the educational system.
(Taken from Vandervalk et al (2005: 533)
As the interviews were unstructured it was not possible to identify all of these factors for each individual. However, each interview did touch on these areas, and it was left to the individual concerned as to whether they wished to discuss these factors as potential reasons for their use of substances. A list of factors can be found in Appendix One.
- 5 out of 10 respondents said that a lack of money in their family had, on one or more occasions, led them to become involved in anti social behaviour. All of these respondents affirmed a positive link between anti social behaviour and drug taking. One male, aged fifteen, said that he would take drugs in a group, but never alone, in order to gain enough confidence to ‘cause trouble’ in their local area.
- 9 out of 10 respondents believed that their age group was not catered for enough in the local area and that they took drugs for ‘something to do’ rather than being forced into it by emotional or stress factors.
- However, one respondent, aged eighteen, said that he used cocaine regularly because it ‘made his stress go away.’ When asked about the nature of the stress involved he said that he felt under pressure to achieve at school. He expressed concern that if he didn’t achieve then his family would continue to struggle financially. An added stress in this case was that the withdrawals he experienced from his use of the drug were negatively affecting his relationship with his family, and reducing his ability to complete his school work.
- When asked about the amount and regularity of drug use, more than half of respondents said that they used drugs more than occasionally. 3 of those said they used regularly ‘for something to do.’ And another said that they used ‘whenever they were bored.’
- Major positive correlations were found between the respondents’ self-reports, where negative thoughts and stress prevailed, and the number of occasions that they confessed to using drugs. Although this link appears to be a significant one, it is possible that some interviewees did not give a completely accurate account of their use patterns, possibly in fear of being ‘found out’ by parents.
- More than two respondents said that they were attracted to drug taking because of its associations with criminality
Results were consistent with the premises of the Social construction approach to defining and explaining the use of drugs in young people. Past research has defined drug use by minority youth as ‘a dysfunctional effort to escape problems stemming from poverty and racism or as an alternative means of making money in the face of underclass isolation from legitimate economic opportunities’ (Merton, 1957; Cloward and Ohlin, 1960; Finestone, 1957; Williams, 1990; Harrell and Peterson, 1992; Currie, 1993. In Covington, 1997: ) However, Covington criticises the social construction of drug problems amongst young people as too easily explaining away reasons for use through emphasis on individual differences – as opposed to collective conditions. She suggests that trends in minority and majority drug use should receive separate treatment.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Future prevention through social work practice needs to focus on the areas of inclusion. A high percentage of respondents said that they used drugs recreationally, and that this had contributed to their developing addiction. That there exists positive associations with criminality reflects the need for social work policy to adapt to find more ways of addressing the needs of young people in particular areas. The findings of the Hidden Harm report commissioned by the government found that children of drug users are one of the most vulnerable groups within society, and as part of the Government response to the report it was suggested that ‘the voices of the children of problem drug users should be heard and listened to.’ (Department for Education and Skills, 2005:4). Research into this minority and publication of results could potentially help social work policy to deter young users from taking drugs, and might also deter young users from bringing up children around drugs. Future research might include a more socially diverse sample, including a greater variety in terms of race and background. Externalising factors might also include social trends and political changes, as these greatly affect the nature and accessibility of service provision within a local area.
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Covington, J., ‘The Social Construction of the Minority Drug Problem.’ Social Justice, Vol. 24, (1997), pp.
Darlington, Y, and Scott, D, (2002), Research in Practice: Stories from the Field. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.
Department of Education and Skills, (2005), ‘Government Response to Hidden Harm: the Report of an Inquiry by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs’ [online]. Available from: http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/_files/73D1398FE270B13D89AF63EF1A8B341D.pdf [Accessed 2/08/08]
Ericson, N. (2001). Substance abuse: The nation’s number one health problem. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Frost, A. K., and Pakiz, B. (1990). The effects of marital disruption on adolescents: Time as a dynamic. Am. J. Orthopsychiatr. 60: 544-555.
Goldberg, D. P. (1978). Manual of the General Health Questionnaire. General Practice Research Unit, Horsham
Gove, W.R, and Geerken, M., (1979), ‘Drug Use and Mental Health among a Representative National Sample of Young Adults. Social Forces, Vol. 58, No. 2, pp. 572-590
Laursen, E.K, and Brasler, P, (2002), ‘Harm Reduction a Viable Choice for Kids Enchanted with Drugs?.’ Reclaiming Children and Youth. Volume 11. Issue 3. P. 181+.
Marlatt, G.A. (1998). Basic principles and strategies of harm reduction. In G.A. Marlatt (Ed.), Harm reduction: Pragmatic strategies for managing high-risk behaviors (pp. 49-66). New York: Guilford Press.
Silverman, D, (2004), Doing Qualitative Research. London: Sage
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Vandervalk, I; Spruijt, I; De Goede, M; Mass, C, and Meeus, W, ‘Family Structure and Problem Behavior of Adolescents and Young Adults: A Growth-Curve Study.’ Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Vol 34. Issue 6. (2005). P. 533+
Zerbe, K.J, (1999), Women’s Mental Health in Primary Care. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders
To identify the presence of influence of the following factors:
Internalizing behaviour Adolescent age
Individual-level Factors Adolescent Education
Family-level Factors Family Structure
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