Home > Exploring the role of family support services in drug prevention.

Keane, Martin (2005) Exploring the role of family support services in drug prevention. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 13, Spring 2005, pp. 7-8.

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On 12 November 2004 the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD) published a report on the role of family support services in drug prevention.1 The report was based on research carried out by Niall Watters and Duane Byrne of Unique Perspectives 1. The aim of the research was to assess family support services with a view to establishing the following:

  • The extent to which current services explicitly identify drug problems as a target of their activities;
  • The extent to which family support work may be judged to play a positive role in the prevention of drug problems;
  • The potential for expanding the scope of family support so as to enhance its capacity with regard to drug prevention.

 The method used involved the development of a database of family support services, a self-completion questionnaire survey of all services on the database, and semi-structured interviews with a small sample of service providers and clients. Between October 2002 and March 2003, a total of 2,000 services were entered on a database. A questionnaire was then posted to all 2,000 services. Allowing for changes of postal address, staff turnover and services no longer in existence, the final number of services was re-estimated to be 1,750. A total of 461 completed questionnaires were returned, representing a response rate of 26 per cent. This low response rate makes it difficult to generalise from the results since the sample is unlikely to be representative of all family support services, a viewed shared by the authors. Nevertheless, it was felt that the responses obtained provided a useful platform from which to explore the role of family support services in drug prevention. In addition to the questionnaire survey, 17 semi-structured interviews were conducted with service providers and 14 semi-structured interviews and one focus group were conducted with service users. The qualitative information gathered by these methods makes a useful contribution to the overall exploratory nature of the study.

Family support services were asked to indicate whether they perceived drug-related problems to be a major focus, a minor focus, or not a focus of their work. Just over one-fifth (21%) reported drug problems to be a major focus, 40 per cent that they were a minor focus, and 39 per cent that they were not a focus of their work.  Seventy per cent of services with a major focus on drugs estimated that over 20 per cent of their clients presented with drug problems. In contrast, 69 per cent of services with a minor focus on drugs reported that less than 20 per cent of their clients presented with drug problems; this rose to 83 per cent in the case of services with no focus on drugs. The implication of these responses is that the bulk of support services do not see themselves as having an explicit role in responding to drug problems. Interviews with service providers revealed that services with a major focus on drugs see drugs as the main contributory factor to problems clients present with, and services with no focus on drugs see drug problems becoming more prevalent among a minority of clients.

More than half (57%) of the services felt that they made a positive contribution to drug prevention. This work may include a focus on reducing risk factors and strengthening protective factors in the family, without necessarily focusing on drug-specific issues. Thirty eight per cent of services perceived that their service prevented drug problems recurring in those that had received treatment. However, where drug use had moved to a problematic stage, services with a limited focus on drugs were less positive about their influence as a medium for drug prevention.

The research also explored the role of family support services in drug prevention using the role insecurity framework. This framework is based on the assumption that clients with drug problems are often likely to seek support from and come in contact with non-specialist services, such as social workers, community-based groups etc., before presenting to specialist services. When this occurs, non-specialist services may experience anxiety about role legitimacy, role adequacy and role support. In the case of role legitimacy, 65 per cent of services saw themselves as having a legitimate role in responding to their clients' drug problems. However, only 40 per cent felt they had the necessary skills and knowledge (role adequacy) to respond to these problems. A majority (64%) of services believed that the level of support currently available to them was not sufficient to allow them to work successfully with clients with drug problems.

The research looked at how best to enhance the drug prevention role of family support services. Suggestions included:

  • New programmes and initiatives, including new service areas and target groups, for example first-time and teenage parents in at risk neighborhoods;
  • Extra resources, including drug-related information materials, staff, premises and funding;
  • Promoting the work of family support services to those at risk of drug-related problems and promoting awareness of the risks associated with drug use;
  • Training for support service staff;
  • Co-ordination and integration of services toward drug prevention ends;
  • Mainstreaming drug prevention work within current service structures.

 Overall, the authors suggest that family support services have the potential to play a greater role in drug prevention. A number of key issues emerged that warrant further attention if this role is to be developed. These include:

  • The introduction of drug prevention to the professional training of those who work in family support services;
  • The role of drug prevention in the services to be adequately resourced, officially sanctioned and mainstreamed in policy terms;
  • Considerable thought and resources are required to assist the services to develop appropriate evaluation and monitoring systems that will allow them to enhance their role in drug prevention;
  • Increased and planned co-ordination between services that deal with families and drug problems;
  • Enhanced communication between family support services and the wider society regarding their role in contributing to drug prevention. 

1. Watters N and Byrne D (2004) The role of family support services in drug prevention. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 13, Spring 2005
January 2005
Page Range
pp. 7-8
Health Research Board
Issue 13, Spring 2005
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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