How do young people who are affected by parental substance misuse approach school and education?
July 2020- Sept 2020
Newcastle University (Fuse)
“Whatever their answer, double it and you should be close…”
A question asked in every GP consultation is how much alcohol a patient drinks. It provides a useful insight into a person’s physical, social, and psychological health. According to my GP tutor, most people underestimate the amount they drink, as well as the impact this has on them.
Substance misuse is a complex issue, and as a medical student I have learned to focus on the impact of problematic drug and alcohol use on individual patient wellbeing. Last summer, as an NIHR SPHR intern, I studied substance misuse from a different perspective. The basis of my internship was a research project focusing on young people whose parents misuse drugs and alcohol. I aimed to explore how young people viewed school and education to understand if this environment could be used to deliver supportive interventions.
I analysed ten UK based qualitative studies which examined the experiences of young people affected by parental substance misuse. Qualitative studies examine non-statistical data to develop themes and a deep understanding of the research question. The young people from the studies I explored were under the age of 25 and from various social, economic and demographic groups.
I was particularly interested in the ways in which young people viewed school as a separate space away from issues they may face at home, to the extent that many young people did not even discuss their home life with close friends. But despite the mental separation of home and school, the reality of their home life often prevented a complete detachment of the two. One young person described how caring for her parent resulted in frequently missing school, while another recognised that his aggressive behaviour in school was a way to offload stress at home.
Many young people also expressed a lack of trust towards their place of education, as well as a desire to blend-in with their peers. This contributes to barriers in identifying young people who may benefit from intervention, as many are fearful of being singled out while in the detached school environment.
In conducting my research, I came to appreciate the difficulty in generating themes from such varied experiences. I often felt that my insights did not do justice to the nuances of each individual story. I discussed this in a virtual meeting with a programme coordinator at ADFAM national charity that works with families affected by drugs and alcohol. Her experience, delivering interventions at an operational level, allowed me to see how my research fit into the real world. I came to understand that while research is conducted with the aim of applying findings to whole populations, these findings are only actionable when combined with existing knowledge and expertise. This discussion was a lesson in the value of cross-collaboration, an important tool in bridging the gap between research and intervention.
Over six weeks I have a broadened my understanding of public health, conducted my own research project, developed my professional skills, and furthered my personal career goals. Although this internship took place remotely, my mentors enabled me to virtually meet various public health professionals. Hearing about their research roles, motivation and future plans has shown me the variety of career paths available within public health and helped to develop my own ambitions. The NIHR SPHR internship with Fuse has been a valuable personal and professional experience and I would recommend it to other students interested in pursuing a career in public health.