Social Justice

Families are the invisible victims of addiction forgotten by our healthcare system

The government has promised to boost funding for drug and alcohol treatment, but it also needs to offer support for families of the addicted.

When a person gets sick, their family also suffers. When it comes to addiction, the toll is just as high on loved ones. Yet families affected by addiction do not often take centre stage. The recent BBC show Matt Willis: Fighting Addiction, which documented the former rocker’s journey with alcohol and substance abuse, offered a rarely seen glimpse into their world.

Throughout the programme, Matt’s wife, Emma, described her ruminating anxieties as the Busted guitarist recovered. She blames herself for not spotting the red flags of relapse and fears her husband’s addiction may kill him.

The show highlighted how unusual it is to see addiction from the perspective of those who live alongside it. Generally, where family is included in the addiction conversation, their role is defined by the extent they can help in the journey of recovery. They are valued as ‘recovery capital’, a resource to help the addict recover. Services which cluster around the individual often overlook their family network, the people whose lives have also been impinged.

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Over five million people in the UK are currently affected by the drinking and drug use of a friend or family member. Faced with a range of social, emotional, financial and health issues themselves, many experience stress, loneliness, mental health problems, stigma, and domestic abuse. Some may need to take time off work as a consequence of a loved one’s addiction, isolating them even further. Children can be exposed to conflict, become financially deprived and feel neglected.

But it’s crucial to remember that families are a key resource in recovery; they are often the first to identify the problem, encourage the addict to get help, and sustain their recovery with practical and emotional assistance. They remain long after the comforting structured steps of detox have been completed. But what support is there for the loved ones of an addict?

“Everyone knows where to go for treatment and recovery but families affected don’t know where to turn,” says Julia Feazey, chief executive of Family Support Link, a charity which supports families in Northamptonshire affected by substance misuse. 

She runs social groups for families affected, a space where many form friendships through a shared experience, often after years of feeling alone. “Raising awareness is the only way we will beat this stigma,” she adds, a stigma and shame which often means “family members don’t reach out and won’t talk to the people they normally do about it”.

Sue Glasgow knows this too well. Her dad was an alcoholic and battled with the disease throughout her childhood. “You would never ask for help, not in the 80s,” she says. “It all comes from fear and shame, those two things have a massive impact on how you ask for help, or not.”

This shame can arise from a feeling that no one else is experiencing the same thing. She adds: “When you’re in it, you think you’re the only person in the world dealing with it, so you would never think about getting support. It’s shameful. You don’t want to tell the world your dad is an alcoholic.”

Growing up, Glasgow didn’t really know any different. But she now recognises the parent she missed out on. “I feel really sad when I think about me as a child,” she says. “I realise I didn’t get the dad I should have had because he was too busy drinking. I’ve got snippets of him being great, but now I know as an adult I didn’t really get the best of him.”

Experts increasingly recognise that the individual needs which arise from substance misuse of a parent, partner, sibling or child need to be addressed and more support needs to be available to repair the damage done to the family fabric. But in the current political and social climate, this is becoming harder to achieve.

“Recent challenges have made what was already an incredibly tough situation for families even harder,” says Robert Stebbings, the policy and communications lead at Adfam, a charity which supports family members affected by addiction.

The last decade has seen the UK battered by austerity, the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis. The number of drug-related deaths in England and Wales rose by 81% between 2012 and 2021.

“Demand is increasing, and with family services already stretched, it is a struggle to meet this growing demand,” Stebbings says. “Practitioners working on the frontline are dealing with a growing complexity of cases, with the needs of those affected by substance use and their families becoming even more severe.” 

Encouragingly, drug and alcohol treatment services have enjoyed a boost in funding after suffering considerable cuts. However, an absence of a family focus in strategy discussion, policy making and treatment, means little of this money has reached services for families.

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“Much of this new funding is targeted at services for those with a substance problem, and based on the feedback we’ve received, very little is filtering out to family support,” Stebbings adds.

In 2021, the government announced a new 10-year strategy to tackle the drug problem in the UK. It promised to “cut crimes and save lives” through breaking drug supply chains, delivering a world class recovery system and reducing the demand for drugs through tougher punishments for drug possession. It aimed to protect “the innocent families whose homes are broken into by addicts seeking to feed their habits”, but does little to mention the families whose homes are also broken by alcoholism.

In order to adequately address the harm done to families by substance abuse, Adfam advocates for a refocused strategy. This looks like placing the needs of someone damaged by drug use on equal footing to those of the person who is using. Instead of asking whether a person is using drugs, the focus should also be on whether an individual is being harmed by drug use.

“With additional funding now available, we would encourage local authority commissioners to recognise the value of family support, earmarking it with the investment it needs,” says Stebbings. “In order to fulfil the ambitions of the drug strategy, we must invest in families.”

If you or someone you know is affected by the issues raised in this story, the charity Mind has a list of useful organisations who can help, the charity Turning Point offers support for people struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, and Adfam exists to support friends and families of people battling addiction.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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