Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Carersí Association

Margaret Morton

Kerrie Tucker: Thank you very much Bishop Pat. Our next speaker is Margaret Morton. Margaret is the Executive Director of the Carersí Association in the ACT. She has six years university study in educational psychology, counselling and science; ten years professional experience as a manager, adult educator, counsellor and high school teacher and she is the mother of four children. Thank you Margaret.

Margaret Morton: Thank you Kerrie. Thank you to the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform for inviting me to speak and thank you all for this opportunity. I think the previous speakers have demonstrated how the community sees this problem. I have to agree with Bishop Power that it is a community problem that we all have to face up to and do something about and when I say community I also mean government. I am very pleased to see that there are representatives of the government and the Legislative Assembly here tonight.

Bishop Power also mentioned that the Governor-General has said that we need to care for the most disadvantaged people and people who are the most vulnerable in our community. I guess thatís where my organisation, the Carersí Association, comes in. I will give you a brief overview of what we do. We provide education, information and counselling as well as support services and respite care for any primary or secondary carer who cares for someone who has a disability, a chronic mental or physical illness or who is frail aged.

I will introduce you to the current picture in my organisation and how drugs and alcohol affect us. When people think of a carer they generally conjure up a mental image of an elderly couple: one in a wheel chair and one looking tired to the point of exhaustion but both struggling on and trying to maintain their own independence as best they can; or a picture of a family group, one parent with MS, another parent and children stoically getting on with their lives; or a very common scenario, a woman in her middle years caring for elderly parents and of course these are all people that receive our care and support.

The idea of a carer rarely conjures up the image of a desperate mother driving around Civic in the early hours of the morning searching for her drug addicted young person. Unfortunately in recent years this is an increasing phenomenon in our organisation. Another extremely distressing scenario and one which fills the Carersí Association with great anxiety for the future is a family where there are young parents who are drug users themselves and often self medicating and also have young children. The young childrenís experience of family life in this situation is filled with chaos, contradictions and inconsistencies and as Sue said they fall into a pattern that becomes cyclic.

The families who present to us are often seeking support because their children are uncontrollable. The problem is much deeper than difficult behaviour from unruly children. We see all these people and many more at the Carerís Association and they are all stressed with different situations. They all need counselling, support and they all need respite. They need the community to jump in and pick up the bits and help them go on. However, looking back over our records we have noted a marked change in the people accessing our counselling services and support.

I wish to add here that the Carersí Association offers a free counselling service to all carers and has done so since 1993. In 1993 there was no uptake for counselling services by people caring for someone with a drug or alcohol problem. In 1997 we saw a few carers who cared for someone with drug or alcohol problems but from the beginning of 2001, one quarter of all new referrals to our service are for issues concerning mental health and well over half of these involve alcohol or drug abuse or use. We are finding higher rates than this in the new referrals for drug and alcohol use in the Non-English Speaking Background project. And as far as loneliness and isolation go in this arena, carer issues can be doubled in terms of stress, secrecy and pain with regard to their young people on drugs or alcohol.

In the space of four years the Carersí Association has seen a very significant swing into the issues of caring for someone with a drug and alcohol issue.

Who are we seeing and who arenít we seeing?

We suspect that the carers we see are but the tip of the iceberg. What evidence do we have to support this theory? The carers themselves. By the time they come to us they are at the end of their tether. They have tried everything they can think of to assist their cared for person and have sought extensively in the community for some sort of help that doesnít amount to platitudes and phone numbers with the promise of "this organisation will help you".

We suspect we are seeing but the tip of the iceberg. Carers in any situation come to us only when they are desperate and with the disclosure of drugs and alcohol it is even more significant for them because of the social stigma that is attached to using drugs. The reason for this secrecy is the social stigma and Fiona mentioned that as well. People donít present when they feel the shame. Carers often feel a self blame and often the direct result for them is mental illness as well, in the shape of anxiety and depression, so we have got another mental illness which is almost spreading to the young person with the problem.

The Carersí Association sees families across the whole social and economic spectrum. Although it would appear that people in poverty would be more at risk, the people that we see are from every social spectrum. Drugs and alcohol, like the common cold, have no respect for poverty, family dysfunction or good family integration. The Carersí Association is finding that drug and alcohol use can affect any and every family. Heaven forbid it could be mine, it could be yours, it could be anyoneís family.

It is only through forums like this that society will stop burying its head in the sand and I believe that this forum could be the seed of something that will grow. Growth will sprout from the politicians that are present; they have the power to fertilise and nurture this seed and the Carersí Association would put a plea out to all politicians present that no matter what party they are from, that this is a major issue that needs nurturing. (Applause.)

We have to recognise that this is a reflection of the society when we allow our weak and vulnerable members to become prey to the huge profits of the illegal drugs industry and this needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. Only when the societal stigma is reduced will we see the extent of the problem, only then can the iceberg pop up to the surface and carers will feel free to access help and disclose the depth and extent of how the problem is manifesting itself in their own household and all the households in Canberra at this very moment - here and now.

What we do know is not good news. We know that most of the carers who access our services at the Carersí Association are women and usually mothers. This has also been observed by the Family Drug Support statistics from the last three years. Family Drug Support has a free national 24-hour telephone line service run by volunteers, offering support to families experiencing drug problems. Their statistics over the last three years show that of the 30,000 phone calls seeking help, 45-55% in any one year are received from mothers and approximately 10% from fathers. Many of the mothers we see at the Carersí Association are single mothers. They lack the support of a spouse and are dealing with major life issues on a regular and daily basis. Talking about stress, we need to get into the shoes of someone who is a single parent looking after a child with a drug or alcohol problem.

Some of the every day issues facing these carers.

The Carersí Association has seen the hard end of the drug and alcohol problems affecting every day life. We are not talking about the 50% or so of high school students who try cannabis but still maintain family, social and educational life. The Carersí Association has seen the problem of intense distress and acute family trauma. Our carers are no longer concerned with the nitty-gritty problems of getting 75% in the last assignment. The importance of High School or College has dissipated long ago - somewhere down the line a long time ago. Our carers leave their home to go to work in the morning, hoping they will return to find everything intact and nothing relocated to Cash Converters. This is something they live with on a daily basis. A much bigger picture Ė the daily 24-hour nagging worry that the carers have, that their cared for person will still be alive at the end of the day. In fact one of them last Monday evening wasnít.

These carers are dealing with issues on a daily basis like dishonesty, where there was previously honesty. They are dealing with theft where there has previously been trust and even violence where there has previously been passive behaviour. One specific issue, one classic trauma we assist carers through is helping them to relate to this changed individual. They once had a child who was sweet and skipping off to primary school. They now have someone who they donít even know, who steals from them, who lies to them. I am sure that I am speaking to a lot of people who are converted to this already. I hope the politicians are taking note.

The carers know the best place for a sick person is in a loving home environment but that loving home is being systematically destroyed by deceit and dishonesty, leading to disintegration and dysfunction for the whole family. Younger siblings suffer. Mums and dads suffer. They often have different and incompatible coping mechanisms and cannot agree on the best way forward so what do they do? Do they maintain the person with an alcohol or drug problem at home? 50% of them do. The risk and the ongoing petty theft on a daily basis, risk of the affects on other siblings from accidental needle stick injuries, with the ever current risk of Hepatitis C or HIV infection or the ever present fear of the other siblings getting involved in drug use. 50% of them do keep them at home and 50% donít. Some find alternative accommodation for the person. The dilemma is if they decide they have to be separated where do they go? The financial implications are enormous and who is going to pay? Our carers feel the old adage is very true: damned if you ask them to leave and damned if you donít.

Remember these carers are still supporting the rest of the family by attending school concerts, going to work dinners and often trying to appear to the outside world like everything is absolutely fine because drugs are taboo, alcohol is taboo. We donít want to talk about these questions because they are in the too hard basket. The isolation and loneliness that stigma produces does nothing to help the situation for these carers.

The first speakers prior to Bishop Power spoke about the importance of dual diagnosis, intimating that there was a gap in our community and that is something that we need to consider. The Carersí Association is trying to address this problem. Currently we provide free counselling and support groups for all carers. In the very near future we hope to respond to the community need in the area of dual diagnosis of mental ill-health and drug and alcohol use by supporting the family in a very significant and timely manner. The projectís name is "Keeping Families Connected" or KFC for short and that is what we hope to do. We hope to keep our families connected so that the best possible outcomes are achieved for not only individual families but all of us as a community because we all know that the family unit is the fibre on which we are all made.

Drug and alcohol and mental health: there is a continuing debate about the relationship between drug and alcohol use and mental ill health and the public perception of the two. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - a manual of great authority throughout the world - substance related disorders are ranked up there with all the other world recognised mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, mood disorder, bi-polar disorder etc. It seems odd that we are still having this debate. Illicit drug and alcohol use is a mental disorder. It does need addressing. The whole community needs to address it and we are prepared to give it a go. (Applause.)

Kerrie Tucker: Thank you