Help for young drug users

A scheme in Wales using intensive techniques is delivering long-term benefits

It is the intensive nature of the Turnaround scheme in south Wales that appears to be the secret of its success in helping young drug and alcohol users in trouble with the law.

The scheme runs for 25 hours a week over 11 weeks and uses cognitive behavioural approaches to help drug-addicted 14 to16 year olds achieve long-lasting change. It also gives them basic social and life skills so they can return to mainstream education, training or employment.

“Over that time, we build strong relationships with the young people. It is much more effective than offering them a fortnightly appointment,” says Sarah Powell, project manager for the Newport, Monmouth and Torfaen Turnaround programme,

Billy, 15, who was referred to Turnaround by his school truancy officer and is now in week six of the programme, agrees. “I had a drug and alcohol counsellor before but I was always getting off my chops and couldn’t keep my appointments,” he says. “This offered an alternative to that, and to education as well. I spend the majority of my time here and am learning how to control myself and not do anything. I have already cut down my drug use incredibly.”

The success of the programme so far is difficult to dispute. It was devised in 2003 by the charity CfBT Education Trust after its inclusion work showed that a large proportion of the 14 to 16 year olds they were working with were misusing substances and in trouble with the law.

The Welsh assembly government provided six-years of pilot funding and almost 300 young people had taken part in it by January 2008. An evaluation in July 2008 revealed unusually low drop-out rates, high numbers of young people reducing or stopping their substance use, and positive knock-on effects on all aspects of participants’ behaviour. It concluded that Turnaround provides “a brief, intensive intervention that has clear potential to deliver substantial long-term benefits”.

“We have worked out what does and doesn’t work, and it is constantly changing as the issues young people face change, as well as the substances they use,” explains Powell.

In addition to the project run by Powell there are two more Turnaround schemes in south Wales: Caerphilly/Blaenau Gwent and Rhondda Cynon Taf/Merthyr Tydfil. A parallel programme for 17 to 19 year olds runs across all three areas.

Each project works with just eight young people at any one time, and the programme is broken down into three stages: assessment and support; change; and transition.

“We are constantly challenging the way they think,” says Klaire Rowland, project manager of the Carphilly and Blaenau Gwent programme. “It is about getting them to think before they do things, and to look at the consequences of their actions.”

At about £3,000 per head for the 11 weeks, the programme is not cheap. However, compared with the cost of a residential service or a lifetime of offending, Powell and Rowland argue that it represents good value for money.

Case Study: Tiffany

Tiffany was referred to Turnaround by her school in April after being sent home five times in a month for turning up to school under the influence of alcohol. “I was drinking litres of vodka, or whisky or Bacardi in the evenings and then going to school still drunk and without having slept,” she recalls.

The 15-year-old from south Wales turned to alcohol after becoming depressed following a family bereavement. Now, seven weeks into the 11-week Turnaround programme, Tiffany is confident she is on the road to recovery and plans to return to school in September to start Year 11 and sit her GCSEs.

“I have talked about my aunty and drinking and my feelings, and we have talked about willpower and being able to stop,” she explains. “By the end of the programme, I would like to be able to have a little bit to drink, but not to drink lots and lots and lots. I feel confident that I won’t want to get drunk anymore.

“The people who work here are amazing, and I have got to know a lot of other young people too. I’ve even learned to cook. I don’t bother drinking anymore; I feel good. I like it here. It’s really changed me.”

What works

  • Don’t be afraid to refer young substance misusers onto a specialist service.
  • Work with them to help them want to change.
  • Be aware of their feelings, any multiple issues and the fact they are likely to suffer from lack of sleep.
  • Discuss harm minimisation so they are at least using drugs safely until they manage to stop.
  • Keep your work with them fun and interesting.
  • Have a strong behaviour management policy in place to deal with challenging behaviour.

Community Care is holding a conference “From Care to Adulthood in a Shrinking Economy” on 15 September in London.

This article is published in the 5 August 2010 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Thinking Issues Through Helps Young Drug Users


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