With less support during the pandemic – are parents struggling to control their addictions?

The pandemic has had an enormous impact on all of our lives. Many of us have faced and are still facing stressful situations, which can be emotionally overwhelming.

Public health actions, such as social distancing and lockdowns, have been necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, they have also left many feeling isolated and lonely, thus causing stress and anxiety. It has been especially difficult for parents who have been faced with the added pressure of their children being home from school.

With a significant fall in support available to parents, drug and alcohol addiction levels have risen, raising concerns for the children in their care.  Research shows that “44.3% of parents with children <18 years living at home reported worse mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic compared with 35.6% of respondents without children” BMJ.

What is concerning is that more parents have been self-medicating during the pandemic – with parental drug and alcohol use seeing an increase through these uncertain times.

By February 2021, the number of people contacting the NSPCC “with concerns about drug and alcohol misuse among parents” had risen by 66%. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have created a perfect storm for families affected by this problem.

With delays in treatments and rehabilitation programmes, the situation may fare even worse. “Though it’s been less discussed, the COVID-19 pandemic has also likely led to a rise in relapse rates for those in recovery from drug abuse.” Neeraj Gandotra, MD, the chief medical officer at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

While services available for addicts and their children have to facilitate pre-pandemic misusers, there has now been a new wave of parents turning to drugs and alcohol due to the stresses of the pandemic. “We’ve not only seen a rise in contacts and referrals but we’re also seeing families who weren’t previously known to children’s services requiring help and support for substance misuse.” (NSPCC).

There is also the added worry that when restrictions are placed on pubs, bars and nightclubs, parents may start misusing at home around their children – which could have devastating consequences for the children.  It should be noted however that this “does not necessarily mean a child will experience abuse, but it can make it more difficult for parents to provide safe and consistent care and this can lead to abuse or neglect. It can also have a serious impact on children’s emotional well-being.” NSPCC.

Excessive alcohol consumption around a child

Notably, Drinkaware suggested in August 2020, that around two in five (38%) of people on furlough and a third (33%) of parents with at least one child under 18, had been drinking more alcohol since the start of lockdown. Additionally, data from a consumer purchasing panel has shown that just over 12.6 million extra litres of alcohol were sold in shops and supermarkets during the 2020/21 financial year compared to 2019/20 (a 24.4% increase).

With the sudden increase in demand for children’s services, drug/alcohol addiction facilities and family courts services, these have been put under an immense amount of pressure, not to mention these services having to deal with various lockdowns and the subsequent large backlogs.

The increase in the need for these services is likely to remain extremely high. Drinkaware are concerned that “for a significant number of people, lockdown levels of drinking may become ingrained and hard to break” – leading to alcohol dependence. This means the need to manage the backlog is even greater.

How to tackle the backlogs…?

To help parents struggling with addiction, the NSPCC is calling on the government, health boards and councils to ensure substance misuse services continue throughout the pandemic. The charity has called for a Covid recovery strategy to support children and young people who have experienced trauma. With more funding these government bodies could offer extra support.

Unfortunately however, due to the various support schemes the government has run during the pandemic, funding is tight and this alone doesn’t eliminate any potential immediate risk to the child, as recovery can take months or even years.  

In order to prevent any risk to the child right away, court systems should:

Continue to prioritise the backlog:
The family courts have already been told to prioritise cases – Cafcass have introduced a ‘prioritisation protocol’ covering several courts to manage ‘unsustainable caseloads’.

This deals with the most high-risk cases with local authorities treating them as urgent. Looking at the risk factors and ‘danger signs’, will help to reduce any actual harm coming to a child.

Social workers to be “out on the ground:
Rather than wasting time on paperwork, Swansea council have suggested that social workers spend more time with children. “The department’s vision is to do what matters to make things better for children.” This means focusing on the voices of children supported by the service.

By saving time on paperwork they will be able to put emphasis on prevention and early intervention, meaning that less children will be at risk or suffer.

Drug/Alcohol Testing / Medical Interpretation:
Whilst drug and alcohol testing will help to determine which drugs a parent is misusing and the levels of that misuse, the medical interpretation goes a step further and reviews the pattern of misuse and its possible consequences. This evidence can assist judges in making safer and more informed decisions as to the possible affects that misuse of alcohol or drugs may have on a child

As the MIFA (Medical Interpretation of Forensic Analysis) provides more clarity in a concise form, it can save the court time in not having to wade through complex lab reports – eliminating the need to interpret them.

For more on the use of medical interpretation and how it’s used, click here.

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