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Keane, Martin (2006) The impact of drugs on family well-being. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 20, Winter 2006 , pp. 15-16.

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A report commissioned by Ballyfermot STAR to assess the needs and well-being of service users attending the Ballyfermot-based initiative was launched on 15 September 2006.1 The report is based on interviews carried out during 2004/05 with two groups of service users, one group of 45 attending the Family Support Programme (FSP) and a second group of 18 attending the Community Employment (CE) programme. The research used up to 17 standardised instruments to collect data on up to 14 different dimensions of well-being. This article will highlight under four headings some of the key findings from the report.

Characteristics of service users

Ninety-one per cent of FSP participants and 78% of CE participants were parents. Seventy-one per cent of FSP participants lived in a two-parent household; 57% of the CE group lived in a one-parent household. The report notes that the rate for lone parenthood in Ireland is 21%.  CE participants were younger and tended to be living with all their children or with their parents, whereas FSP participants are more likely to be grandparents and to have acted in the role of full-time parents to their grandchildren. The report noted that nearly one-third of all service users lived in accommodation rented from the local authority – about four times the national rate.

Drug use in families of service users

Eighteen per cent of FSP participants and all the CE participants had used drugs. Both groups reported drug use by their partners, 13% of the FSP group and 22% of the CE group. Of the FSP participants, 76% reported a high level of drug use by their children, and 46% reported that a family member was a current active drug user.

A comparative assessment of the well-being of service users

When compared to a representative sample of parents in Ireland, Ballyfermot STAR service users had:

  • much higher levels of negative emotions
  • fewer positive emotions
  • significantly lower levels of psychological well-being
  • experienced higher numbers of negative life events in the past year
  • significantly weaker support networks
  • weaker parent-child relationships
  • higher numbers and frequencies of physical symptoms

 On at least one significant dimension of well-being, participants on the CE programme fared badly compared to the FSP participants. For example, CE participants had dramatically reduced physical well-being; 90% were unable to work due to sickness or disability and 72% reported using prescribed benzodiazepines. The report noted that significant interventions would be required to bring levels of physical well-being among this group closer to the norm. These individuals had all been active users of illicit drugs and the majority were now stable on methadone and availing of the CE part-time work and vocational training programme to improve their employability.

However, research has cast doubt on the suitability of vocational training programmes for participants with questionable claims to stabilisation and poor health and physical well-being. For example, Kemp and Neale2 pointed out that employability programmes can only realistically engage with clients who have achieved a consistent state of stabilisation and are in good health and secure accommodation.  

Influence of drug use on family well-being

This part of the research focused exclusively on the 45 participants in the Family Support Programme (FSP). A key research question that runs throughout this report is: To what extent is the well-being of families negatively affected by drug use in the family? Nineteen per cent of families attending the Ballyfermot STAR centre had experienced the death of a family member as a result of drugs, and 59% of service users had a family member who had been imprisoned for using drugs. Furthermore, families with a member who used drugs, whether active (using illicit drugs) or stable (using prescribed drugs), had consistently lower levels of well-being than families that were drug free (without either an active or a stable drug user in the family).

On the other hand, FSP service users living in drug-free families had significantly higher levels of well-being than those living in families where drug use was either active or stable. In addition, service users living in drug-free families had significantly higher levels of well-being than the average Irish parent. However, the authors noted that, given that these data were cross-sectional (collected at one point in time) rather than longitudinal (collected at different points over time), it was not possible to be certain about the direction of the causation. Nonetheless, the report makes the case that it seems plausible to infer from the data that well-being is influenced by drug use, rather than the reverse, since those who were currently drug free had previously been active or stable. The authors concluded that, on balance, it was possible to infer from the data that the presence of a drug user in the family had a significant negative impact on the well-being of other family members.

This is an important piece of research into an area that is now being recognised at policy level and was highlighted in a study by Murphy-Lawless3 on the impact of drug abuse on families in the north inner city of Dublin. The need to respond to the problems faced by families affected by drug misuse was recognised in the mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy.4 The review recommended that a new cross-pillar action be developed covering the broad area of family support, under which the recommendations of the recent family support study by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs5 should be implemented.

It is important for communities that have been identified as areas with acute levels of problematic drug use and associated levels of socio-economic disadvantage, such as Ballyfermot, that policy responses remain targeted and sustained towards removing disadvantage and reducing the demand for illicit drugs. It is likely that such sustained and meaningful policy commitment will be met with an enhanced neighbourhood solidarity, as was reported by some of the participants in this study. As this research has also shown, users of the Ballyfermot STAR services reported huge satisfaction with their neighbourhood compared to the norm in Ireland. Moreover, participants on the CE programme, despite their own reported poor levels of physical well-being, were even more satisfied with their neighbourhood than the FSP participants. This was the only dimension of well-being in which service users displayed a level of well-being that was higher than the national norm.  

[1]. McKeown K and Fitzgerald G (2006) The impact of drugs on family well-being. Dublin: Ballyfermot STAR.

2. Kemp P and Neale J (2005) Employability and problem drug users. Critical Social Policy, 25(1): 28–46.

3. Murphy-Lawless J (2002) Fighting back: women and the impact of drug abuse on families and communities. Dublin: Liffey Press.

4.  Steering Group for the mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy (2001) Mid-term review of the National Drugs Strategy 2001–2008. Dublin: Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

5. 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
All substances
Intervention Type
Harm reduction
Issue Title
Issue 20, Winter 2006
October 2006
Page Range
pp. 15-16
Health Research Board
Issue 20, Winter 2006
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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