On Friday 17 January 2014 my funny, chatty, kind, popular and big-hearted sixteen-year-old son Dan went to off a party locally with friends. He didn’t come home. The policeman who knocked in the early hours told us he’d been found collapsed at a rave the other side of London having taken ecstasy. We spent the next two days in intensive care, watching him die from multiple organ failure.
My husband Tim and I, our older son Jacob, and the community around us, were left with a passionate commitment to do all we could to prevent any harm, of any shape, form or degree, happening to any other young person from drugs. We founded a drug and alcohol education charity in his name, the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation, as our way of doing this. Our commitment to prevention was born the moment we lost our son.
When Dan died, we realised a lot of things. We realised drugs were much closer to our door than we’d thought – and ours is a very ordinary door – and are part of young people’s social environment, especially by their mid to late teens. We realised if someone like Dan, with nothing to mark him out as being at risk of significant harm from drugs, could nevertheless end up in this worst of all worse case scenarios, then that risk was there for any young person, along with all the possible shades of harm and damage drugs and alcohol can cause. We realised other parents and carers were probably, like us, not as aware as they needed to be about this very different landscape their children inhabit, and not as well equipped as they needed to be to help their children keep themselves safe.
The good news in our sad story is that harm is avoidable. Prevention in drug and alcohol education is all about equipping young people with the knowledge, understanding, life skills and resilience they need to navigate exposure to drugs and make choices safely. Parents play an absolutely vital role in this. The effectiveness of any prevention programme will be significantly increased if it involves parents and carers, who remain the most important influence on their children throughout their teens – even if their teens may occasionally give them the impression they are no longer of any relevance or use!
I had worked in education for many years before Dan died, initially as an English teacher in post-16 education, my primary work being with parents with limited skills in English, whose children were underachieving or at risk of doing so. I had increasingly taken on management roles as well as teaching, and when Dan died I was managing a big curriculum area for our local authority adult education service, working in partnership with children’s centres, early years settings, schools and community groups. I also had a lead strategic role nationally in my specialism of Family Learning, the basis of which is that involving parents in their children’s learning is essential in order for them to achieve their full potential. It is this professional background, as well as my personal experience as a parent losing a son, that lies behind the multi-component approach to prevention our charity has developed.
We work directly with children and young people in schools, colleges and community groups, through interactive workshops, assemblies and talks. We have a full programme of evidence-based planning and resources for teachers to deliver drug and alcohol education to their students throughout their secondary education. We deliver training to teachers, school staff and professionals working with young people. We have a Youth Ambassador programme for 16-18 year olds. We’re Associate Members of the University of Middlesex Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, working with their academic team to ensure all of our programme is evidence-based, evaluated and as effective as it can be.
Integral to all of this is work with parents and carers, including on occasion delivering workshops with parents and their children together – a great way of opening up conversations to take back home. Workshops involve finding out about what young people and parents need to know about the risks of drugs and alcohol, levels of young people’s exposure to drugs and alcohol, factors that affect young people’s decisions about drugs and alcohol, including teenage brain development, how to have effective conversations at home, and practical suggestions for what they can do to support their children to stay safe.
Parents repeatedly and consistently state how little they realise they knew about the issues and choices their children face in relation to drugs and alcohol in this very different world they inhabit. Most importantly, they say they leave our workshops feeling better armed to play their vital role. It goes to show just how important it is for us all to come together in the important work of preventing harm to young people from drugs and alcohol.
Fiona Spargo-Mabbs is Director, Operations Manager and Co-Founder of the DSM Foundation.
For more information, visit: www.dsmfoundation.org.uk