Tessie Regan – Like Having Six Senses

Tessie Regan‘s new book Shorts is a series of short stories about Alcohol, Asperger Syndrome and God. This short introduction is about the relationship between alcoholism and Asperger Syndrome as viewed from her humorous and unique perspective.

I’m 31 and it has only been in the past year that doctors have used their probes and fancy words to explain what exactly has been going on in my brain. Getting my diagnosis meant everything made more sense. I wasn’t insane! I wasn’t rude or unsympathetic! I wasn’t a loner because I hated people! I wasn’t moody because I was impatient! I wasn’t easily distracted and unfocused because I had ADD! I wasn’t a royal pain in the ass as a child because I was undisciplined! I was operating in a different playing field and had been quieting the confusing and undiagnosed symptoms of Asperger’s by drinking myself to death – self-medication at its very finest.

The drinking washed away the feeling of steel-wool in my temples, removed the square blocks from my sternum and eased the clenching jaw that kept in the screaming because my skin was electric. The drinking made my senses relax and encounter the world at a slower pace. When I was sober some things would be so heightened that it was hard to distinguish which sense was receiving what feeling. It is like being dropped off by the mother-ship to run some experiments on the earthlings, but they’ve forgotten to give me the bone and flesh suit that can withstand the elements. Like sending a football player into the game without pads and a helmet… Oops!

Regan- Shorts - pg 36 - image

But I guess you’re thinking what did it look like, to be a drunk and to have Aspergers?

While I was drinking most of the symptoms were quieted and hidden. I could be so normal, but only when I was in active addiction. Before I began drinking and during seasons of sobriety was the best vantage point to see Asperger’s. It hid in ‘personality’ and easily fooled the people that loved me because to them it was a harmless problem they could chalk up my oddities (or the endless pool of my ‘personality’). For example I loved consistency and routine and any minor change would result in near cataclysmic meltdowns. As a child, it meant becoming physically ill and depressed and eventually hospitalized when we moved from West Virginia to North Carolina. As an adult, it meant drinking myself through changes big and small. From my older sister moving out of the country to the corner grocery store changing the layout of the aisles.

For the most part having Asperger’s means doing life with a little bit of funniness, but there is a darker side. There is a lot of time alone because I enjoy solitude and also because I need to reset. There is a lot of avoiding and making lame excuses because I don’t want to do something and this hurts people’s feelings. They really start to resent the criminal boyfriend that is espoused to my mind. They make wide circles and annoyed groans. They roll their eyes and suspect I didn’t see it because I didn’t look them in the eye. They wonder when I’ll grow up or mature or act my age. Sometimes they earnestly believe this is because I drank for so many years and that I have given myself some sort of permanent brain damage. The more that my cards make sense, the more they seem to offend the others at the table. But the misunderstanding is okay. When sunlight picks up the hairs on my bare skin one at a time and raises the temperature by a miniscule degree; when I can watch and see this miracle happening on my arm, I will remember that some people will not notice the warmth of it at all. I will remember that my bag of tricks is a blessing translated for the earthlings as ‘quirky’, and let it be well to be that too.

Tessie Regan is the author of Shorts, which is available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. To order your copy go the JKP website.

 

Julian Cohen on ‘All About Drugs and Young People.’ (Part 2)

In the first part of this interview, All About Drugs and Young People (Part 1), JKP author, educator and counsellor Julian Cohen shared some of the insight and experience he has gained whilst working to educate young people about drugs over the past 30 years. In this second and final part, he talks about legal highs, how the internet has affected young people and drug use and offers more advice on what parents and professionals can do to support young people who are or may be using drugs. 

Cohen_All-About-Drugs_978-1-84905-427-0_colourjpg-web6. In your experience, how significant is the advent of legal highs and the internet? How do you think they have impacted young people’s experiences of drugs and drug use?

Both are very significant. As I explain in some detail in my book there are now hundreds of different legal highs being sold in this country. They can sometimes be sourced from dealers who sell illegal drugs but the main supply is through the many and growing number of headshops in cities and larger towns, from other retail outlets including some garages and even car boots and over the internet. This means young people have much easier access to a wide range of relatively cheap drugs, often without any contact with drug dealers or putting themselves at risk of breaking the law.

Many legal highs will be unfamiliar to young people who use them and some have dangerous effects, especially if taken in large quantities and/or with other drugs. We have started to see more deaths related to legal highs, many it would seem when young people have not been clear about what they have taken, how much it is safe to take or the implications of combining use of legal highs with other drugs.

Buying drugs over the internet has increased significantly, especially, but not only, for legal highs. All it takes is a credit card order and the drugs are delivered in a package to your door by mail or courier very soon, possibly the next day. There is also a growing market for buying illegal drugs over the internet, often using encrypted websites that make it very difficult for the authorities to trace sellers or buyers. The internet is likely to become an increasing feature of drug supply and markets in the future.

Ease of availability of legal highs and of drugs through the internet raises serious questions about our existing drug laws because there are now so many ways to obtain drugs without breaking the law or by reducing the likelihood of being caught. Countries such as Portugal, Uruguay and New Zealand and also some American states are beginning to experiment with new and less draconian drug controls. Hopefully, more informed debate about new ways of controlling drugs, and finding sensible ways of reducing the harm that can follow from using drugs, will develop in the UK.

7. Is addiction or dependency on drugs a common problem for young people? Why do you think some young people develop drug dependency?

The first thing I want to stress is that the majority of young people who use drugs have a good time and do not come to serious harm. Most go on to moderate use or give up altogether as they grow older and take on adult responsibilities. It is only a small minority of young users who become dependent on drugs.

I believe that drug use, in whatever form, is always functional. That is, rather than just thinking that drugs do things to people, people choose to use drugs, as they do, to obtain certain outcomes relating to increasing pleasure and relaxation and/or reducing distress, anxiety and pain.

A lot of people think of addiction or dependency as a lifelong disease or that certain people have ‘addictive personalities’ that mean they will inevitably become dependent and cannot do much about it. Having studied these issues for many years I do not think there is much good evidence to support these views, despite the fact that a lot of people believe them.

In contrast, I see dependent drug use as a symptom of deeper, underlying problems that people face. Dependency is an attempt by users to keep negative feelings about themselves, other people and the world around them at bay and to get through a life they are having difficulty coping with. It is a way of trying to deal with emotional distress and pain that is grounded in people’s past and current life experiences and situations. In the words of the author Bruce Alexander, dependent users experience a ‘poverty of the spirit’ and have become ‘dislocated’ from themselves, their communities and wider society.

8. What are some of the main things parents and professionals can do to support young people when it comes to drugs?

I have called one of the major parts of my book ‘Be Prepared’ and suggest ways both parents and professionals can help and support young people. The first thing I emphasise is the need to inform ourselves and to learn facts, rather than myths. I also stress that both parents and professionals can be proactive in helping to make sure that young people have a good drug education. Ideally we can learn alongside young people and also from them as well. It is also important to be aware of, and to question, our own use of drugs and our feelings and attitudes about drug use.

Most of all we need to develop our ability to listen to, and openly communicate with, young people, rather than lecture them. I also suggest that both parents and organisations that work with young people will benefit by negotiating sensible drug rules and sanctions, rather than imposing them or being overly draconian.

To ‘be prepared’ it also helps if we anticipate situations where young people may be using in ways we find acceptable and/or having difficulties with their drug use. This includes being clear about whom you might want or need to inform and involve, about any legal obligations you may be faced with and, for professionals, clarity about the boundaries of confidentiality. Both parents and professionals will find it useful to know how to make a sensible assessment of what is happening, why a young person may be using as they are and what risks are involved. It is also useful to know some basic drug-related first aid and about where and how to access specialist help for young people and also for yourself.

We need to be realistic about situations when young people are involved with drugs and the changes we can expect of them. Where young people are likely to continue to use drugs, whatever we may hope or say to them, it is crucial to adopt a harm reduction approach whereby we can help to ensure their safety and keep channels of communication open. I cover all these issues and more in my book.

9. How can we help young people who develop serious problems with their drug use?

As I explained before, if young people develop serious problems with their drug use they will be experiencing significant difficulties in their lives. If we are going to help them we need to empathise with them, listen to what they have to say, understand the difficulties they are experiencing in their life, help them to explore their options and help them to make realistic changes. We might also sometimes have to hold up our hands and appreciate ways we may have contributed to the problems they are facing.

Rather than castigating or demonising them we need to support them as best as we can. Ideally we will do so in the ways I have already described above and by helping them to access good, specialist services, when needed. However, we should appreciate that young people cannot be helped by such services unless they are willing to engage with them.

It can be difficult for us to be consistent in our support for young people who have developed serious drug problems. It can be very taxing, especially for parents. I have devoted a specific chapter to this and also written chapters giving advice about what we can do if young people become violent or steal money or possessions to buy drugs or supply drugs and situations where young people may be using drugs but do not see any harm in it and will not stop.

In such situations it will help if we can avoid panicking, are patient and realistic about what we can expect from young people. It is important to be clear about our own boundaries regarding what is and is not acceptable to us and what we are, and are not, prepared to do for young people. All this can be very difficult to do. There are no magic wand solutions. So I want to emphasise that neither parents nor professionals are on their own and that, where necessary, they should seek support for themselves so that they are better able to help young people.

But in a wider sense it is not just down to parents and professionals. If we are to reduce the number of young people who experience serious problems with their drug use we need to make sure that we have appropriate and well-resourced education and support services that engage well with young people. I am concerned that funding for such services has been declining. And we also need to address wider community, societal and political issues so that all young people have opportunities to develop meaningful and fulfilling lives in the future.

10. What did you learn from writing the book?

I learnt more about young people’s drug use and realistic and practical ways of responding to and supporting them. There is always more to learn. The book involved a lot of research using published sources and also talking with people. It was a challenge to organise my ideas and to reflect on, and learn from, my personal and professional experiences. Above all I had to question what I think and believe and why.

The process of writing re-enforced in me that we still too often focus on substances to the detriment of understanding and having empathy for people – young people, parents and professionals – and the reasons and ways we use drugs and also respond to other people’s use. In this sense it is important that we see drug use as more of a symptom, rather than a cause, of the issues we face in our lives.

 

You can read a free extract from Julian’s book, All About Drugs and Young People, in this blog post.

Julian Cohen is a writer, educator, counsellor and consultant who has specialised in drug and sex education work with children, young people, parents, carers and professionals for nearly 30 years. He has written extensively on drugs and young people, ranging from teaching and training packages to educational games, pamphlets and books for young people, parents and professionals. Find out more about Julian including his training courses and consultancy work on his website, here: http://www.juliancohen.org.uk/ 

Julian Cohen on ‘All About Drugs and Young People.’

In the first of a two-part interview, JKP author, educator and counsellor Julian Cohen  shares some of the insight and experience he has gained whilst working to educate young people about drugs over the past 30 years.

Cohen_All-About-Drugs_978-1-84905-427-0_colourjpg-web1. Your book emphasises that nearly all of us use drugs and have a lifetime drug career. Can you explain what this means and why it is something we need to be aware of?
If we define drugs as mood-altering substances we have to include medicines, caffeine and alcohol as well as illegal and other socially taboo drugs. This means that, in today’s world, we nearly all take drugs from a very early age. You might even say that we experience drug use before birth because many substances taken by pregnant mothers cross the placenta and can affect a foetus.

Too often we tend to think of drugs as only being illegal or other socially taboo substances. Yet medicines, caffeine and alcohol can also affect our moods, stimulate or depress our body systems and sometimes cause us problems. Medicines and caffeine play any increasing role in the lives of young children and are present throughout our lives. In fact many young children expect and sometimes demand medicines when they do not feel well or cannot easily get to sleep. Inadvertently we are teaching young children that, if you want to change the way you feel, you buy a drug and take it. You could almost say this is like an apprenticeship for future social drug use. At the other end of the age spectrum many elderly people take a plethora of mood-altering medicines.

We nearly all self-medicate on an array of mood-altering substances throughout our lives. When things are going relatively well for us our drug use tends to be more moderate. But when we experience difficulties our drug use tends to increase in an attempt to keep difficult feelings at bay. The real issue is not whether we take drugs or not, but whether we have a relatively successful, safe and pleasurable, what I call, drug career or a more damaging one.
And when it comes to understanding young people’s drug use, and their motivation for using as they do, it helps if we reflect on our own drug careers and the lessons we can learn from them.  In the introduction to my book I have written about my own drug career, and those of significant people in my life, and how reflecting on that has helped form my own attitudes and views about drug use.

 

2. One of the most commonly asked questions when speaking about drugs is; how easy is it to spot the signs of drug use? How do you know if someone is using drugs?
Following on from my answer to the previous question you can see that we nearly all use drugs and often there are unlikely to be anyway give-away signs that we do. Most people ask this question with regard to young people using illegal and other socially unacceptable drugs. The difficulty here is that unless you are with a young person when they are actually under the influence of drugs you may have no idea that they use drugs at other times. And even if they are behaving strangely or out of character they may be doing so for reasons that may have nothing to do with drug use. For example, they could be ill or have had an emotionally traumatic experience. Some publications list changes in behaviour that may indicate drug use but most of these things could be due to other things. The danger of looking for set signs and symptoms is that we will jump to the wrong conclusion and even start accusing young people in a way that prevents honest and open communication with them.

You might also find what you think is a drug or drug paraphernalia. Whilst this may indicate drug use it can be difficult to know exactly what you have found and whether a substance is actually the drug you suspect. Pills, powders and herbal-type mixtures are often not easily identifiable. They may not be what you first think they are and might be for purposes other than you assume or fear. And similarly what you think may be drug paraphernalia could be things that have other, non-drug uses.

My main point is that looking for signs and symptoms of drug use is no substitute for communicating with young people. And to do this effectively we need to avoid assuming the worst, keep calm and actually listen to them.

 

3. The book also talks about how the dangers of drugs are often exaggerated; what do you mean by this and why you think it is an unhelpful approach?
As I explain in some detail in my book there is a long history of us exaggerating the dangers of illegal and other socially taboo drugs whilst underplaying the risks of alcohol, medicines and other more socially acceptable substances. We also tend to ignore the dangers of non-drug activities that we often encourage young people to participate in, such as outdoor pursuits and extreme sports. Statistically such activities are often far more likely to result in injury or death, than using drugs. In this sense we can be very hypocritical about young people’s use of drugs.

We also tend to take extreme examples of cases where young people have died using drugs and try to present these as norms and as a warning not to use drugs. The problem here is that many young people find out from their own use and by hearing from others, that drug use is not as risky as we make out. In fact it may well be an exciting and fun experience for them. They then distrust adult sources of information about drugs and feel we are lying to them. The result is little open dialogue between us and young people. Drug use can be dangerous but we need to be honest with young people and keep the risks in perspective.

 

4. Similarly, you talk about how a lot of people have inaccurate ideas or information about drugs. What are some of the main or most damaging myths?
There are so many commonly believed myths about the effects and harms of particular drugs, about the people who use drugs and why they use as they do, about how drugs are obtained and how much they cost, about dependence and addiction and about what we can realistically do about drug use. In fact there are so many myths that I will not go through them here. Many of them are listed in my book where I invite readers to think about and discuss particular myths they may think are true and to be aware of the lack of evidence for them.

The difficulty for us all is that many of these myths are commonly used and re-enforced in the media and by politicians and other social commentators. In many cases we seem to be so anxious about drugs that we lose our capacity to think sensibly and rationally and instead latch on to soundbites and mythology. This creates unnecessary fear and is not a good basis on which to have meaningful discussions with young people about drugs or for parents and professionals to make decisions about how to respond to their drug use. And, of course, it is also not a good foundation on which to make decisions about drug laws and wider drug policies in our society.

 

5. You have specialised in educating young people about drugs for many years. In what ways do you think drug use by young people has changed in recent years?
The large scale surveys that are carried out on a regular basis do not give an accurate picture of overall drug use among young people but they do give us some indicators. It is clear that, more recently, fewer young people have been smoking cigarettes and slightly fewer have been drinking alcohol. The figures for those who have tried most illegal and other socially unacceptable drugs have also fallen.

However, new trends and new substances are emerging that give a different picture. Cocaine use is now more common amongst young people than 20 years ago and although ecstasy use has declined the recent trend to more use of powder, rather than just pills, may see numbers using increasing again. Use of ‘newer’ drugs such as GHB, ketamine, mephedrone, nitrous oxide and PMA has emerged and, as I emphasise in my book, there has been a very significant increase in the use of legal highs, substances that mimic the effects of illegal drugs but are not (yet) controlled under drug laws.

So whilst there may have been a decline in the number of young people using certain drugs, many young people are still using and they now have access to, and are selecting from, a broader range of drugs. We also know that young people in the UK tend to drink more alcohol and use other drugs more often and in greater quantities than many of their European counterparts.

There are also questions as to whether or not more of the young people who do use drugs are using in greater quantities and/or becoming dependent. The evidence is not clear but there are concerns that the ongoing recession, high youth unemployment and lack of opportunities for many young people may mean that more of them may become involved with heavy use of drugs.

The other point I wish to highlight is that young people’s drug use has increasingly become part of the general pattern of commercialisation and consumption that is now such a feature of life in the UK. In this sense drug use has become both more individualistic and more mainstream. Some commentators now talk of the normalisation of drug use amongst many young people.

You can read the second part of this interview, in which Julian talks more about legal highs, as well as how parents and professionals can support young people, how we can help if a young person develops a serious problem with their drug use, and what he himself learned whilst writing the book, here.
You can also read a free extract from Julian’s book,
All About Drugs and Young People, in this blog post.

Julian Cohen is a writer, educator, counsellor and consultant who has specialised in drug and sex education work with children, young people, parents, carers and professionals for nearly 30 years. He has written extensively on drugs and young people, ranging from teaching and training packages to educational games, pamphlets and books for young people, parents and professionals. Find out more about Julian including his training courses and consultancy work on his website, here: http://www.juliancohen.org.uk/ 

All About Drugs and Young People – a free extract

Cohen_All-About-Drugs_978-1-84905-427-0_colourjpg-webIn this extract from All About Drugs and Young People author Julian Cohen provides a brief summary of the subjects he covers in the book, and includes a drug knowledge quiz which will help you to challenge myths and misconceptions about drugs.

For a free sneak peak, just click the link below to read the extract in full.

All About Drugs & Young People – free extract

You can find out more about the book, read reviews and order your copy here.

 

 

 

 

C’mon everybody – get writing!

Vanessa Rogers is the author of Working with Young Women, Working with Young Men, Let’s Talk Relationships, 101 Things to Do on the Street amongst others. In this article she gives her writing tips for aspiring authors. And, if you’re feeling inspired feel free to send in your proposals to post@jkp.com


They say that there is a book in all of us, and judging from the number of emails and Tweets I get from people in the youth work and social education field inspired to write their own, it would certainly seem to be true. So this is a collective response to those of you who have asked me for ideas of how to start writing, and to share my personal experiences of writing a book. I hope it is useful – but please remember this is only my way, which I made up as I stumbled along the way.

When I start a new resource book it is because the subject holds a compelling fascination for me. For example, Working with Young Women (Jessica Kingsley Publishers ISBN 9781849050951) came out of lots of girls’ groups that I was facilitating at the time. The young women came to the group because they had been identified as at risk of offending and aggressive behaviour, but the more I got to know them the more I thought that a lot of their behaviour was actually a response to the bad relationships they had with their peers, parents and boy/girlfriends. It seemed to me that their anger and aggression was a coping mechanism that until now had worked for them. So, this made me question how young women can build a sense of self, gain confidence and assertiveness, look at the role models they have and their aspirations for life – in a way that is interesting, non-judgemental and fun. After all, through the group work I was basically asking them to change their existing coping behaviour, (which whilst not necessarily socially acceptable to all, gave them the kudos and ‘respect’ they sought), to take a chance of being vulnerable and exploring things that hurt to find a better way with me. But it seemed that this was the foundation for everything else – e.g. if you value yourself and your body you are more likely to respect it and look after it.

So from here, as for every other book I have written, I devised a series of questions that I wanted to answer. These help me keep focused and distill the essence of what I am trying to do.

After that, I spend about 3 months researching the topic. I do this by reading around the subject and trawling the Internet for ethical and correct data and statistics, but also by speaking with other practitioners and as many young people, or in the example above as many young women, as I can, to ask my questions and test out some of my theories. By now I usually have at least one box file filled with clippings and stuff, as well as my trusty notebook (I always have at least one hardback notebook on the go) filled with points to remember and ideas for games, quizzes or activities.

One thing; all of my session plans have to be tried out with young people before I will include them. For me, this part is one of the rules of my work to keep it ethical and grounded – it has to have been tried and tested and I have to know that young people will learn from it and more importantly enjoy doing so.

As I write constantly this means that I often have ideas stashed on my computer that are developed later when the opportunity presents itself. I try my best to include lots of learning styles in the activities and this might mean that I write the same learning outcomes three times, with three different ideas for delivering them. So, as I try them out with young people I use the one that goes best and dump the rest. I also ask young people to give me feedback as the book comes together, which I value as they don’t hold back if they think it won’t work!

Once this is done, I stick my main points on bits of paper around my desk and tell everyone that I am going to be ‘writing’. To my family this means that I am likely to be distracted, a bit bad tempered and the dinners will be rubbish for a while – but the good news is that I will be in the house for days on end and easily tempted to buy take-aways!! To my friends it means that if I do see them I am probably going to bore them witless by obsessing over my blossoming (or not) book. All training and other work is put on hold. And then – I write it.

I tend to write ‘all over’ my books – meaning that I might write part of the intro, then get a bit stuck so move on to one of the later chapters.  It may look chaotic but it isn’t – more like putting a jigsaw together, because by this stage I know exactly what I want to write and how it will look at the end. I tend to really get into this bit so write day and night, with no adherence to office hours – I actually prefer working through the night so it is pretty usual for me to be writing between 2 and 5 a.m.

Once it is done – which usually takes about 7 days end to end – I put it away for at least 3 days before getting it out and editing / doing the final writing.

Then it is off to Jessica Kingsley Publishers …… and I miss it like mad …… get a bit sad, like at the end of any relationship …… do any edits or re-writes asked of me by the editors and proof readers ….. and leave the printers to get on with it. In my head it is over.

I try and build a break in at this point so that I can have fun with friends and family and shake off the topic that has been all consuming for what might have been up to a year. And then, just when I think that I have had enough of writing, something sparks my interest – and the whole cycle begins again.

I hope this helps – but as I say all writers are different and I am sure you will find your own way of working. My only advice would be, write for you and choose a subject you feel passionate about – if you aren’t at the start, you definitely won’t be at the end! My very best wishes and good luck with it – let me know how you get on.

 

Working with drug and alcohol users by Tony White

In this short piece Tony White introduces his new book Working with Drug and Alcohol Users: A Guide to Providing Understanding, Assessment and Support. Using transactional analysis theory, this book explains why some people use substances, exploring different personality types, and covers the basic components of drug counselling.


This book is designed for counsellors and those who come into contact with drug and alcohol users as part of their work or in someway in their life. It provides a somewhat new look at drug and alcohol use using the theory of Transactional Analysis as the underlying approach. Other approaches are also discussed, including the Gestalt approach and cognitive behavioral therapy as these also contribute significantly when working with substance users.

Customary areas including a theory of addiction, the assessment of the drug user and different motivations as to why people use drugs are covered. This different approach allows for the development of new and innovative approaches to well known counselling problem areas.

Central to the transactional analysis approach is the idea of therapeutic contracts. From this is described a technique called the harm reduction contract. This describes how the client and counsellor work together to develop a contract for the implementation of harm reduction strategies. It describes a four step process by which the drug user can make a harm reduction contact with the help of the counsellor. Also covered in the area of harm reduction is self harm and drug use, suicide and drug use, dealing with defense mechanisms in harm reduction counselling and so forth.

Another very common area in drug counselling is motivational interviewing which is covered in this book. By using Transactional Analysis one can develop two different types of motivational interviewing. The usual techniques involving the behavior approach are covered and this could be seen as the adult ego state approach to this area. In addition to this, the child ego state can be used as an avenue of motivational interviewing. This book describes a variety of child ego state approaches. It opens up a whole new approach to motivational interviewing that has rarely been discussed before.

The most problematic type of drug user is the dependent drug user who is usually seen as the drug addict. Considerable time in the book is spent looking at how this person functions and what counselling approaches may be successful with them. The approach in this book emphasises the relationship between the drug and the drug user again using the Transactional Analysis principles of symbiosis and dependency. The drug dependent user develops a symbiotic relationship with the drug in the same way a person can develop a dependent relationship with a partner. Indeed this person will have a pattern of relationships in their life that tend to be dependent in nature such that the relationship they have to the drug is the same in nature. The approach described in my new book looks at how one can end the dependent relationship with the drug and a variety of strategies are described.

In Search of Youth Work by JKP author Vanessa Rogers

An interesting and thought provoking article from JKP author, Vanessa Rogers on what it is to be a youth worker today. Vanessa is the author of a number of titles on working with young people including, Working with Young Women, Working with Young Men, Let’s Talk Relationships, 101 Things to Do on the Street, and new from JKP the Little Books on Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco Set.


What is Youth Work?

Today I realised that I have been a youth worker for over 15 years, yet I still struggle to explain exactly what that means, especially to someone outside of the profession. It is not a simple answer and I have even been known to say, ‘social worker’ in certain social settings just because it is easier.

The irony is not lost on me; that I am prepared to betray my profession, even though I feel so passionately about it, because I can’t be bothered to explain what I do and that it involves more than playing pool and sorting out squabbles about which track to play next on the iPod in the youth club. Explaining detached youth work is even harder, and has even been met with snorts of laughter at the thought of being paid to wander the streets talking to unknown young people. ‘But what is the point?’ is a constant refrain.

It has not always been so. There was a time not that long ago when it would be hard for me not to weigh in with my views. In fact, many of my ex-students could stand testament to the fact that, ‘what is youth work?’ is one of my favourite assignment titles, and the 500 words produced in response are a constant source of interest and heated debate.

Then it dawned on me that perhaps the sinking heart I get whenever someone asks me what I do for a living is not merely personal apathy, but because I have had the conversation one too many times. The sense of justifying what youth work is, why it matters and the unique place it has in supporting young people – not only amongst friends, family and strangers but also with youth workers and other professionals – has become habitual. I realised that I am a bit tired of the struggle and don’t want to spend time any more time analysing the process at a cost of actually doing it less.

It hasn’t always been so difficult, although I am in no way harping back to some mythical golden age of youth work. I am simply pointing out that if you had asked me 15 years ago what I did my answer would have been pretty easy – an area youth worker for the Youth & Community Service responsible for developing girls work, work with young parents and managing a large and busy youth wing on the site of a school in an area described as ‘deprived’. So far, so clear.

The role of a Youth Worker

Fast forward and my role, but not my professional title, has changed so many times that writing a CV can be a daunting thing. Terminology for the young people, or ‘client group’, has changed from young people ‘at risk’ through ‘vulnerable’ to ‘targeted’; youth services have dropped the ‘ & community’ tag and been variously part of the education, leisure, Connexions and social care departments.

Responsibilities have changed to include meeting parents, undertaking social care assessments, creating community profiles and measuring work by the number of accredited outcomes achieved.
What constitutes ‘youth work’ has changed so many times that it can now be tagged on to virtually any service that works with young people.

But is this a good or bad thing? Is the increase in those using traditional youth work skills to engage with young people something to be celebrated or lamented? All I know is that ‘youth work’ is a notoriously difficult term to describe, and it isn’t getting any easier. The task of trying to find a pithy one-liner to sum up the collective aims of so many different clubs, societies and detached projects is almost impossible.

Perhaps it is that so many people now describe themselves as ‘youth workers’, whilst working in areas more traditionally associated with social workers or youth justice? I have even spoken with police officers that say they do ‘youth work’. Really? Are the professional boundaries so completely enmeshed? Please note this isn’t about professional qualifications, or even the lack of them, more a questioning of how the ethos of voluntary participation and the gradual process of building positive relationships and engaging and empowering young people fits within a law and order or social care framework.

The ethos at the heart of Youth Work

Historically, youth work did not develop just to ‘keep people off the streets’ or to provide aimless amusement, it has always offered social and political education in an informal environment. Good youth work may look as if it just ‘happens’ but the success of it actually depends on good planning, clear aims and measurable outcomes. This ethos should be at the heart of all youth work – especially detached projects. Surely an exciting detached project that motivates young people to get involved should result in more, not less, youths on the street? And that should constitute success?

Put simply, providing young people with a ‘good time’ is not enough. Effective youth work should offer young people the opportunity to meet, socialise, develop new skills, explore the world around them and learn to question and challenge what they see effectively. Detached projects should not be about forcing young people off the streets and away from adult eyes, but more about building trust and developing interesting projects that are relevant to their needs, reflecting the things of importance to them. Which is unlikely to be the same as the media focus on demonizing young people as part of a lawless counter-culture.

As I see it the need to build two-way respect between young people and other members of their community is paramount – after all it is hard to encourage young people to take up their responsibilities and become active citizens if they are treated like social outcasts. Why would you want to be part of something that clearly doesn’t want you?

Perhaps the answer is purely financial. In the struggle to chase funding and secure projects we have been forced to chase the pound, rather than offer what young people truly want. Or maybe as numbers dwindle in traditional old-style youth clubs what’s on offer is simply outdated and no longer meets the needs of teenagers. In that case let’s stop hanging on to the solutions of the past and try new ideas.

Listening to Young People

Young people can be innovative and visionary, with energy and enthusiasm to shape and change the world. To do this they need to find ways to get their voices heard and be able to see that their participation in things like youth councils, forums and consultations actually makes a difference. To be honest, as an adult I am happy to give my opinion on things that matter to me but I get disheartened and then disinterested if nothing ever comes of it and I don’t receive any feedback. Too often I think young people are let down because although they are told that their opinions count, when it comes to money and budgets, they don’t. Participation has to be more than a paper exercise or a way to ‘tick boxes’.

Reclaiming Youth Work

So I think it is time for youth workers to stand up and reclaim youth work by celebrating how different it is to other work with young people. It should be seen as a whole, not as a useful pick’n’mix to compliment other services, and defined in our own terms – whether that is through a Youth Work Academy or some other collective process – before someone else does it for us.

In another 15 years time I don’t want to still be ducking the question, ‘what do you do for a living?’ – I want to be able to say (still with pride), ‘I am a youth worker’, and for that to mean something.

Vanessa Rogers’ Top Tips for talking to young people about drugs and alcohol

By Vanessa Rogers, youth worker and author of the new set of books for those helping young people make informed decisions about alcohol, drugs and tobacco.


Being a young person can be difficult. Fact. There are so many choices to make, as well as lots of physical, intellectual, emotional, and social concerns to deal with, from friendships (and more intimate relationships) to decisions about education, training or work.

Some of the biggest dilemmas can be about whether to smoke, drink alcohol or try drugs, with different messages being received from school, friends, parents, community and the media. So social education, that includes drug and alcohol awareness, is really important in enabling young people to gain the knowledge and skills they need to make informed choices.

Have a look at my Top 12 Tips for talking to young people about drugs and alcohol. They are not exhaustive, but hopefully will help you to provide sessions that are engaging and educational, as well as thought provoking and fun:

  1. Be prepared and informed. Even the most knowledgeable drug support workers is likely to admit that no one can know it all. Drugs change, the way people use them change – even the names change; but don’t think that because you are not a drugs expert you cannot offer useful support, or facilitate successful drug awareness sessions with young people. Make sure that your drugs knowledge is as up-to-date as possible and know where to find good quality information to fill the gaps.
     
  2. Don’t make assumptions. Lots of teenagers pretend to be far more knowledgeable or experienced on the subject of drugs than they actually are. Accept that if the young people you are working with are using a particular drug they will probably know far more than you do about the effects – but that doesn’t mean that they understand the health risks, or know the legal status. Start any work by exploring the young people’s values and attitudes to both legal and illegal substances, and assess knowledge before targeting with specific topics.
     
    Use this ‘Drug Chair Swap’ activity to assess knowledge in a fun way! »
     
  3. Avoid using scare tactics. They are unlikely to work and are more likely to put young people off engaging. Seeing pictures of drug-ravaged adults or telling horrific stories may have an instant impact, but they can also lead to thoughts including: ‘They are old, so it doesn’t matter’, ‘I don’t use that drug so it isn’t relevant’ and the old favourite, ‘It won’t happen to me!’ Also resist the temptation to make sweeping statements – for example, ‘If you smoke you will get lung cancer’ – because most young people will know this is simply not true, or can cite relatives who have lived to a hundred smoking 60 a day! It is much better to qualify what you say (e.g. ‘Smoking really increases the risks of developing lung cancer’), and then support them to look at other health risks associated with smoking, including those that can affect younger people, so that you are encouraging them to learn, not arguing a point.
     
  4. You cannot stop young people taking drugs – but you can help make sure that they have the information, skills and confidence to make healthy choices for themselves. When planning drug awareness work, include looking at the social consequences; for example, the increased risk of aggressive behaviour due to false confidence after using amphetamines, or having unprotected sex whilst drunk, as well as the legal and health implications. Plan activities that increase self-esteem, discuss personal boundaries and develop young people’s confidence to say what they really want, rather than bowing to peer pressure.
     
  5. Listen – to young people’s opinions and concerns. Create opportunities for them to discuss how they feel about a wide range of drug related issues, including the legal status of drugs, penalties for misuse and health debates. Explore issues such as drugs in sports and the impact of media and celebrity culture on drinking and smoking. Magazines, newspapers and TV are always rich sources of discussion topics to spark debate.
     
  6. Remain non-judgmental. You may have strong feelings about drugs and alcohol, but before you share your personal opinion consider how useful that is to someone else. It is far more beneficial to explore values and opinions, differing points of view (whether you support them or not) and offer correct information, than it is to take the stance that ‘all drugs are bad’, or ‘I can stop people taking drugs by telling them about my experiences.’ After all, if a young person feels judged they are far less likely to open up and far more likely to be defensive.
     
  7. Accept that people make mistakes. Whilst youth workers can support young people if they make bad choices, they cannot stop them making them. It is important that young people understand that mistakes do not make you a ‘bad person’, and ensure that young people know that if they do make mistakes, or feel worried about the behaviour of others, there are support services that can help.
     
  8. Only give out correct information. If you don’t know something, say so and offer to find out! It is far better than telling a young person something that they later find out is incorrect. One duff answer can make everything else you say written off as wrong too. On a practical note, make sure that all leaflets and posters are up-to-date and that you get your facts from reputable sources.
     
  9. Set clear boundaries. When talking about drugs with young people, remind them of your professional boundaries and the fact that some things cannot be kept secret. Ensure that your organisation has a clear drugs policy that all staff are familiar with, which includes sanctions and rights of appeal.
     
  10. Consider cultural differences – both within the staff group and young people. Take these differences into account when planning your curriculum to make sure that what you offer is appropriate. Also consider whether parents should be involved or notified of what is planned. If you are not sure about something – ask.
     
  11. Consider gender differences. Young men and women often have different reasons for their decisions about whether to experiment with smoking, alcohol or drugs. Certainly research would suggest that young women choose to drink different drinks, e.g. vodka, whilst young men prefer drinking lager or strong cider.
     
  12. Evaluate and review. Make sure that feedback from young people offers you more than, ‘I had a good time’. Whilst we want young people to enjoy their time with youth workers, it is also important that they learn, too. Try and build in fun ways to evaluate and gain feedback on the three key skills area – knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

Helping young people reflect on the social consequences of drinking – An interview with Vanessa Rogers

Vanessa Rogers is a qualified teacher and youth worker in the UK with over ten years’ experience both at practitioner and management levels. Prior to becoming a nationally acclaimed youth work consultant, Vanessa managed a wide range of services for young people including a large youth centre and targeted detached projects in Hertfordshire, UK.

In this interview, Vanessa speaks about her new book, A Little Book of Alcohol, which is the first title in a set of books for those helping young people make informed decisions about alcohol, drugs and tobacco.


You’ve written a number of activity books for young people – why was it important to write one focused on alcohol issues?

Several years ago I took up a secondment opportunity within Hertfordshire County Council and became a Drugs and Alcohol Education Consultant to schools and education providers in the county. My job was to support teachers in developing an interesting PSHE (Personal, Social & Health Education) curriculum that would engage with even ‘hard to reach’ young people. It was also intended that consultants build their confidence to a point where they felt comfortable discussing alcohol issues with young people and able to provide good, impartial information that encouraged young people to make healthy choices based on facts, rather than demonising alcohol. I have also taken this approach when delivering the training that I currently offer to youth workers, social workers, and those working in the voluntary sectors, based around the book.

I was soon struck by how few resources I could find that focused solely on exploring alcohol issues, despite it being a major topic of concern both locally and nationally in the UK. The books that I did find either lumped alcohol in with other drugs, or were offering a message of abstinence, which I felt for most young people was a turn off to learning.

Because of this I began to create new activities, using a youth work approach, to engage young people in learning that was meaningful and relevant to their lives. I became certain that there was a real need for practical and informative activities, games and quizzes that encourage young people to stop and think a bit about the choices they make regarding alcohol, staying safe and the potential negative consequences, whilst still having fun. These became the basis for my book and grew from there.

What has your experience as a youth worker shown you about young people’s relationship to alcohol? What are the main issues young people face in relation to alcohol and drinking?

It would be easy to say that all the problems of underage drinking are caused by peer pressure, but it would be too simplistic to be true. There are lots of reasons that young people choose to drink alcohol, just as there are many reasons that adults do. It should also be remembered that not all young people, or adults, do drink.

Click to download an activity: 'Influencing Exercise' from A Little Book of Alcohol by Vanessa Rogers.

My concern is that it is seen by many as normal and perfectly acceptable to drink vast quantities and then behave in a way that ranges from outrageous to deeply offensive. In fact, I have seen it lead to vulnerabilities and challenges that many young people are just not physically or emotionally equipped to deal with.

I think that young people are receiving mixed messages about alcohol; on the one hand, they are told it is bad for them and a major cause of anti-social behaviour; on the other, they see it portrayed all around them as a fun, recreational thing to do, with little or no consequences apart from a bit of a hangover.

Turn on the TV and the soaps, dramas and films are filled with people of all ages enjoying a glass or two – or ten. Drinking is seen almost as a 21st century rite of passage to adulthood, and young people are given the impression that it is ‘normal’ to spend Friday and Saturday night on a drinking spree with the sole purpose of getting drunk. There are even TV shows devoted to showing the sometimes embarrassing or disastrous results of binge drinking.

In real life of course the consequences of alcohol fuelled rages or drunken arguments are not so funny. Unwanted pregnancies, getting into trouble with the police, street violence, drunk driving and liver damage are certainly nothing to laugh about – nor are they just the domain of young people.

Our alcohol fuelled world must impact on children and young people who look to us to see what being a grown-up is all about. Unlike other drugs, alcohol is socially acceptable and almost expected in some instances. It is actually quite hard to be teetotal and socialise in pubs without attracting attention and unwanted questions about why you are refraining. If that is hard for an adult, consider how much harder it is for a young person to stand out from the crowd.

Do you think young people’s relationship to alcohol has changed over the last few years? How so?

I am not sure if the relationship has changed, but certainly research would suggest that overall drinking patterns have changed over the last twenty or so years, particularly amongst women.

Additionally, in the UK I think that the majority of young people will be provided with opportunities to drink from a relatively young age, including at family occasions, national and cultural celebrations and with peers. To cope with this I think it is vital that time is spent supporting them to develop the skills needed to make healthy choices.

Alcohol is also widely available in a way that it wasn’t for previous generations. From supermarkets to petrol stations, cheap bottles of wine, multi-packs of lager and brightly coloured ‘alcopops’ are sold, making it easier to buy and consume.

I would like to see more education for parents, too, about the levels of alcohol in some of the sweeter tasting drinks, and the fact that many of them contain the same amount of alcohol as a couple of shots of spirits! The parents I have worked with have been shocked to learn just how much alcohol they were giving to their sons and daughters to take to house parties.

Do you think young people are receiving enough education about alcohol issues? How might your book contribute to discussions around alcohol misuse and other issues?

My personal opinion is that often too much focus is placed on the danger of illegal substances, and too little on arming young people with the facts and skills to make good choices about alcohol, which nearly all of them will come into contact with as they grow up.

I think that the resources in my book are so successful with young people because they reflect real-life concerns and dilemmas, and reflect on the social consequences of drinking, as well as the health concerns.

If professionals want to talk to young people about alcohol they need to be honest about their own values and attitudes to it first. For example, what one person might consider to be a ‘heavy night on the tiles’ another might think of as perfectly acceptable. Once this has been done, it is easier to deliver sessions that are honest and open about alcohol, both the positive and negative aspects, to make it more real. I am not suggesting that they share inappropriate personal experiences, just that they try and remember how it feels to be a teenager facing some of their first evenings out.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

“Suicide is not a problem that can be tackled alone – but it can be tackled.” – An Interview with David Aldridge and Sergio Pérez Barrero

David Aldridge is co-director at the Nordoff-Robbins Zentrum in Witten, Germany, where he specializes in research methods for various therapeutic initiatives, including music therapy. He is the author of a wide range of JKP books on topics ranging from music therapy and dementia to non-violent resistence in families and spirituality in health care.

Sergio Andres Pérez Barrero is a doctor of medicine and a professor of psychiatry specializing in suicidal behaviour, particularly from a family and community perspective. He has been temporary advisor of the Panamerican Health Organization and World Health Organization for the suicide prevention in The Americas Region, and is the author of many books about the theme of suicide.

In this interview, they discuss their collaboration on the new book, Understanding Suicide: A Guide for Families and Professionals, and their interdisciplinary approach to suicide prevention. 


Please tell us about your professional backgrounds – how did you become interested in this area?

David: What started me off studying suicide was when I worked for a voluntary organization, the Samaritans. Although I had spoken with suicidal people through the night, there were still others who were in hospital the next day. We seemed to be missing something. I wanted to know what this was. Then I met a professor of psychiatry who told me that suicide was an act that just came “out of the blue” and could not be prevented. From my limited experience at that time, I knew it just could not be true. As a social worker and youth worker, I knew people who had become suicidal over time and could see the process of their worsening plight.

I began my research career with a doctoral study of suicidal behaviour where I developed a model of escalating distress in family situations. I was one of the early doctoral students with the Open University and they encouraged my study because of the relevance and applicability that it has for the community.

Sergio: I was the author of the first book on the subject written in Cuba during the revolutionary period, which was called Suicide: Behavior and Prevention and published in 1995. In the same year, I founded the Suicidology Section of the Cuban Society of Psychiatry, and was Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the country’s first and only congress on the Prevention of Self-destructive Behavior in November 2003, which was attended by delegates from Cuba, Norway, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Argentina.

I continue to give lectures on community projects and concentrate on psychiatric care in primary health care.

What led you to collaborate on this book?

David: We are both interested in a systemic perspective on suicidal behaviour and have emphasized an interdisciplinary approach in our writings. In our working lives we are committed to the relief of personal distress. However, we know that this distress has relational, cultural and social origins.

In addition, we are both concerned about the world-wide problems that suicide causes, particularly in developing countries, and we believe that an inter-disciplinary approach to prevention is necessary.

Both of us are also committed to the idea that scientists from all over the world should be able to share their knowledge freely, without embargoes of any kind. Suicide is an international problem that requires our combined efforts including free access to research findings and clinical expertise.

Can you give us an overview of the book – what is it about?

David: Suicide is about a process of distress that worsens. Finding the causes of that distress and offering an alternative means of distress management will help prevent suicide.

Many professionals come into contact with people who are in distress. Teachers come across bullying all too often. They also meet children who are having family difficulties where parents have mental health problems, problems with substance abuse, are having difficulties coping with a chronic illness or are in financial difficulties. Some children face despair when their family lives fall apart. Social workers and probation officers, too, meet these problems in their daily working lives. Health professionals are often faced with emergency crises which they know are only the tip of an iceberg of distress. This book shows some of the warning signs and encourages them to see the bigger picture and intervene earlier.

Sergio: The book aims to bring awareness to those concerned with suicide prevention, whether students, professionals or those interested in preventable death more generally. It was written in a accessible, digestible way for the average reader, starting from the principle that suicide prevention is the responsibility of whomever is closest to the suicidal person and knows how to help.

Our aim in the book is to simplify how we approach suicidal behaviour. Because there is so much research from varying perspectives, and the problem is multi-faceted, it is possible to make things very complicated. If, however, we look at the chain of events where distress in the family becomes suicidal behaviour that needs a psychiatrist, then we can bring some clarity. Differing perspectives on the problem are important. What we are emphasizing is the process of events for the person and his or her family so that they are clear to see.

What are some obstacles that professionals encounter when working with suicidal individuals and their families?

David: One of the main obstacles that we encounter is the shame and stigma surrounding mental health, and feeling suicidal in particular – both from the sufferer’s point of view and from the health professional’s viewpoint.

The second obstacle is that many general health care practitioners do not recognize depression often, or early, enough.

The third problem is the lack of cooperation between health care practitioners, social workers and care agencies.

The fourth problem is that of economic decline. At the moment we are writing this book, Greece has been facing a major economic challenge. The suicide rate has risen in this time by 40%.

What we offer is a model to show how problems escalate and how these problems are connected to relational contexts. We are encouraging people, particularly professionals, to communicate with each other and to look at the bigger picture. This is not a problem that can be tackled alone – but it can be tackled. To do so, we have to talk to each other. As professionals, we also need to collaborate more on combating mental health problems. This is an educational process, heightening awareness of how depression manifests itself but also removing the stigma of mental health.

Sergio: In my view, the biggest issue is that the suicidal do not come forward to receive specialist attention. When they do seek help, though, the obstacles are recognized by an expert on the subject, among which are the following:

  • Difficulties on the part of the family to interpret suicidal signals;
  • The persistence of myths around suicide that we must try to eliminate;
  • Failure of family members to take the necessary measures to keep their loved one alive – for example, allowing access to suicide methods and leaving them alone.

Why was it important to include a chapter on the internet?

Sergio: Bullying, in all its manifestations, is a major health problem in school settings. Cyberbullying is more common in developed countries in which adolescents and youth have access to the internet, email and other technologies, while face-to-face harassment was much more common in our day.

David: The internet is an important means of gaining information in modern times. It also provides the platform for various social networking sites, which can also be anti-social in that they are sometimes used for cyberbullying. Bullying is a primary cause for distress in young people.

It is important first to raise awareness about cyberbullying and about the fact that this can bring young people to a state of despair. Second, parents need to understand that while their children do indeed have private lives, that privacy can also mask a social threat to their well-being and mental health. What may be an innocuous social network can become the source of a malevolent attack from which a child has seemingly few avenues of escape. The social can circumvent closed doors into the very heart of privacy, beyond the caregiver’s knowledge.

What are some of the most important messages that you hope the reader will take away from this book?

David:

  • The need to implement national and regional strategies for suicide prevention using a multi-layered approach involving voluntary, educational, social and health care resources.
  • The need to resolve distress early using a family approach.
  • The need to be active in preventing bullying.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.