Renfrewshire Council

Improving the mental health of young people who use drugs and alcohol

Stories from young people on their struggles and the support they have received to help them turn their lives around.

All names have been anonymised to protect the identity of each young person. 

Madison's story

Madison was just 12 years old when she first started using cannabis with her friends. She grew up in an area where it was impossible not to be around peers who weren't using drugs.

She said: "Everybody is using drugs around you, so, aye, you get into it too. I wanted to say 'no' to the drugs back then, but I wasn't able to say that back then."

Madison has had a significant number of traumatic experiences as she grew up, including a parent who used drugs and was in prison, and this led to a decline in her mental health as a young teen. 

"You see people lying on the floor passed out with drugs and it's just seen as normal. Most of the time they don't even know what they are doing while they are high. Drugs are awful. They turn you into a different person. It's not a normal thing to do, yet everywhere around you people are 'on it'. I don't want that life."

Madison reached out to RADAR when she turned 16, and again when she turned 17.

"I wisnae well through the drugs and my heid wasn't right. It was only when Paul started working with me that I turned a corner. I knew Paul from a group that RADAR run, and I trusted him because he has never done anything that has made me not trust him.

"I told Paul I don't want the 'on it' life and that I wanted to get a job, so one of the first things he said to me was 'you're grounded'. He said, 'we need to come up with a plan and you need to stay home for a while'. I laughed, but I also did it and it started to change things."

Part of Madison's plan was to live in her own flat: "It was too busy at my ma's flat with the wee kids there (her nieces and nephews). I needed my own space, and we worked towards that.

"I couldn't imagine not having my wee mamie in my life. She's been my rock." 

Paul is always at the end of the phone for Madison whenever she needs to talk, whether by text or a call. He is there whenever Madison needs emotional support, motivation, help addressing work and housing issues, as well as drug education.

"He doesn't judge you. He doesn't tell you not to do drugs, but he's there to support you through it all, the ups and downs. He is there to help you achieve your plan."

Madison has always wanted to get a job, and after she recently started working for a company she was awarded 'employee of the month' the first month she was there. "I always just wanted a job, so I am happy I have this one. In the next five years, I want to become a manager involved in logistics or organising things."

Jackson's story

Jackson, 19, started using alcohol when he was 14, but later moved onto taking drugs as a way to deal with his emotions. His parents had split up when he was young, but the biggest impact was experiencing domestic abuse.

"My stepmother was always mad at my dad and would throw things and shout verbal abuse. Sometimes she would take it out on me. She would read through my notes and go through my stuff."

Jackson even ended up being arrested for breach of the peace when he was locked out of his family home one day, but it was how his family assumed he was taking drugs that ultimately led him to do so.

"I feel the reason I got into drugs was so stupid. It was a rebellious thing. My family were making me out as a loser and accused me of already taking drugs when I wasn't. It was then that I decided that if thought I was taken drugs, then I would."

Jackson first experimented with ecstasy, but then moved onto valium and heroin.

"When I broke up with my girlfriend, I then felt I needed drugs to cope. I was introduced to a drug dealer in Paisley, who is now busted, but I went there for valium. He was always smoking heroin and I wanted to try it. It wasn't addictive straight away, and I stopped using it for a couple of weeks, but then I gradually got hooked onto it.

"I always said I wouldn't inject heroin, but then all of a sudden it happened. There was something like a family argument and that was it.

"I feel like I've lost my teenage years by using valium and heroin. Also, if you say you won't take heroin and you are on valium, you will end up taking heroin."

When Jackson's family tried to hold an intervention, he says that they ended up blaming each other for his drug taking. It was then that he decided he wanted to come back and talk to Susan from RADAR.

"I really appreciate having Susan there to talk too at any point. I know I might have messed Susan around a wee bit, but she still put up with me.

"My dad is with me through all the hard times, but he does fly off the handle sometimes. We shout, but then he calms down.

"He says I listen but don't hear him. He does listen to me, but he does not understand my emotions. He will say 'stop feeling sorry for yourself and just get over it'. When I need to talk about my emotions, I will talk to my mum or visit my younger sister or brother."

Jackson is now doing much better thanks to the support around him, but he recognises that it's been a long road to recovery.

"There have been times when I was still trying to get high thinking 'no one will know'. I wanted to get the high from methadone, but I ended up sleeping all the time.

"When I dropped all the drugs I was taking, I felt so ill I couldn't move off the couch and I ended up taking valium to fix it. It's a cycle you end up in without having the support of someone like Susan to talk to."

Alexis' story

Alexis began using cannabis at 15 years old to help her 'chill out'. She says drugs are entrenched in her biological family and that she needed to step away from her family to avoid being pulled into that life.

"My parents have tried every drug under the sun and growing up there wasn't good. It was chaotic. So, when my brother and I were taken into foster care, I was actually glad as my foster carers gave me a different outlook on life."

While her placement with her foster carers broke down, Alexis is still in touch with them.

"It wasn't just one thing but a series of things that added up to a big thing, so when I was 15-years-old I moved into a children's home. Looking back, I think it had to happen, but my foster family are still part of my life and I spend Christmases with them. It just was difficult to cope with me in their home at that time in my life."

"It was also a big decision moving back to Renfrewshire. My foster carers don't live in Renfrewshire, so there wasn't any chance of bumping into my biological family when I lived with them, but the children's home was in Renfrewshire, so I was worried I would bump into them, and they would drag me back into their lifestyle."

Alexis decided to refer herself to RADAR through her key worker. "I needed someone who was non-judgemental of me using cannabis to relax. Not everyone who works with young people understand that they are being judgemental and it's difficult to have a proper conversation about drugs with them. I knew Paul didn't judge you because I'd met him through the children's home."

Paul provides young people with a friendly, non-judgemental ear and gives young people the drug education they need on safe practices and awareness of the risks involved.

"I still like using cannabis to relax, especially when I meet up with my friends, but I want to have a functioning life too. Paul helps me to see how my choices affect the things I want in life, but he doesn't tell me not to use cannabis. He doesn't judge. He's there when I need to talk to him, and I usually see him about twice a week."

Alexis is now aged 20, has a job and has moved into her own flat.

"I love being in my own place. It is so quiet compared the bickering of living with other young girls. There's no drama on my own. I can do what I want when I want.

"I was also taking driving lessons, but these had to stop due to covid restrictions. I can't wait to start them up again and be able to drive my own wee car."

Joseph's story

Joseph started using alcohol when he was 15 to cope with family bereavements. By 17, he had moved onto drugs.

"I've had about eight deaths in my family during my lifetime. My dad died of a drugs overdose when I was young. No one even knew he took drugs. I saw him getting taken out of my home and into an ambulance and I never saw him again. My gran and step-grandfather both passed away with alcohol within a year of each other.

"My papa drinks and has Korsakoff dementia. My mum and her partner both have alcohol problems, but it's a bit more moderate."

With his whole family using either alcohol or drugs as their own support system, Joseph felt all alone.

"I've been brought up around alcohol. All my elders coped that way and there was a lack of support from a young age. How do you talk to a drunk as a child?

"I've been passed about households because of these bereavements. I've never had a fixed home."

Joseph says the lack of stability had had a significant detrimental impact on him, leaving him with anxiety and sometimes having suicidal thoughts.

"I really missed out on having a father figure in my life. It's left a huge impact. I just want normality and a routine."

"Some days I don't want to talk to anyone or leave the house. When I drink alcohol, my anxiety majorly increases. The after effect of alcohol on my anxiety is awful. I want to hide till the fear and anxiety goes away.

"You want to be out the house. Sitting in the same room with my own thoughts is horrible."

The sustained periods of lockdown were particularly hard on Joseph.

"This year through lockdown has been hard. It's much better to drink in a pub as they manage the amount you can drink. It's also increased my anxiety as we've being told what to do.

"Lockdown has meant I can't do anything, like going for a swim.

"Alcohol is in your face. It's all-over social media. I can only escape social media by turning off my phone but that causes me other problems."

Friends didn't really know that Joseph was drinking alcohol while at school, but while Joseph recognises what alcohol is doing to his mental health, he thinks most young people have no idea of its impact.

"A lot of my friends are struggling with alcohol and drugs. I think they are worse than me, but they are in denial about it. I see them binge drinking all the time.

"When I left school, drinking alcohol became far too frequent, whereas at school I was just drinking at weekends and most people didn't know, except my guidance teacher.

"When I drink and get upset, my friends don't understand. They don't have the same life experiences as I do. They don't understand why I'm upset or struggling."

Joseph has also had some negative experiences with health professionals and police officers while trying to seek help.

"I often try to get support from hospital. I've been there 19 or 20 times in the last year, but doctors don't ask why I am drinking. They just say it is the drink that is causing my mental health issues.

"The doctors say they couldn't help me because I was drunk. They couldn't assess me while I was drunk. I need access to mental health support, not for my alcohol use. Alcohol is a symptom, not the cause of my mental health issues. You present at A&E to get help and all you get is a bit of paper flung at you and discharged.

"Eventually I saw a doctor at A&E who listened to me and directed me to support."

Now aged 19, Joseph has been working with his support worker, Susan, for almost a year and has ambitions for his future. He wants to pass his driving test, get a job, get a house and have holidays abroad.

"Susan helps me by checking in, asking if I'm doing ok, do I want to talk. I just want my mental health to be sorted and I'll be laughing. I want to go to the pub and have a laugh with my friends and not drink too much."

Emily's story

Emily, 20, says that alcoholism and addiction runs in her family. Her friends growing up also used drugs and Emily said it made drug use seem more acceptable.

"My friends at the time did influence my substance abuse directly. One friend in particular did influence my codeine use."

Emily began using alcohol when she was 12 and began experimenting with drugs from 15. At age 17, Emily was referred to RADAR.

"I was put onto a diversion program after I was arrested for breach of the peace.  The police referred me because I was 17 and using drugs.

"Since I was referred to RADAR, I have been on one detox program and a maintenance program.  I entered psychotherapy and have been in it for over a year now.  I have a greater awareness of my addiction and mental health now, thanks to RADAR referring me to a psychotherapist.  RADAR have provided me with the support that I do not normally have in my day-to-day life.  I would not have managed to stay on treatment for as long as I have if it wasn't for them."

Emily suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder from an emotional, physical, and sexual abusive relationship she was in when she was 16. This exacerbated her use of drugs to come to terms with her trauma.

In her earlier teenager years, Emily was also bullied at school and says she didn't get the help and support she needed.

"I was bullied incessantly throughout high school. My attendance throughout high school was horrendous because I couldn't cope. I had no choice but to leave at 16. If I didn't leave when I did, I would have probably killed myself."

Despite the trauma of being bullied, an abusive relationship and her drug use, Emily is now in a better place.

"Had I not been through a cacophony of bad experiences, I wouldn't even have half of the wisdom and knowledge that I have now.  Yes, there has been a lot of pain and hurt in my life, but to change that means to readapt and I am quite happy as I am.  If I had to really nitpick though, I guess I wish that I'd never tried codeine specifically.  Even then though, I've gained a lot of insight through my experiences with it.  I've gained even more insight through coming off of codeine and being sober, which I never would have done had I not been an addict in the first place."

In the future, Emily would like to go back into education and get a job.

"I'd like to be happy.  I can see myself being back in education and work by then.  I can definitely see myself being sober, that concept is not as far away from me as it used to be.  I'm unsure what path this life will lead me to next, and I can't really predict what the next part of my journey will be.  All that I can hope for, is that things will be better - that I will be wiser, stronger, happier, and an all-round better person that what I've ever been."

Published October 2021