HSE drug treatment centre for teens reports ‘worrying’ trend of gang threats

The report claimed service users reporting gang members would force other young people to kiss their shoes or the ground in order to let them pass

Illegal drugs. Stock image© Getty Images/EyeEm

Seán McCá

Young people attending a specialist addiction treatment centre run by the HSE in Dublin have reported an increasing trend of youth gangs who bully, threaten and intimidate other teenagers.

The latest annual report of the HSE’s Adolescent Addiction Service said the prevalence of such youth gangs which involved both males and females was “an emerging and worrying feature” of youth activity in some communities.

The report claimed service users reporting gang members would force other young people to kiss their shoes or the ground in order to let them pass or pull hats off their head or urinate on them.

It said some gangs were also challenging adults including gardaí.

The report shows 65pc of young people attending the service last year came from families where there is some history of alcohol or drug abuse – up from 42pc the previous year.

The report also recorded a 10pc increase in the number of young people referred to the service for treatment for alcohol and drug abuse during 2022.

A total of 53 young people and their families received treatment from the service last year, while it also worked with concerned individuals in relation to two other teenagers who did not attend the service – an increase of five over 2021 levels.

The average age of adolescents attending the centre was 15 years with participants ranging in age from 13 to 18.

More than three-quarters of those using the service were male, while 7pc were non-nationals.

In addition, the parents of 44pc of young people attending treatment from the service last year were separated compared to 28pc in 2021.

The overwhelming majority of cases involve cannabis with the drug being used by 98pc of teenagers receiving treatment.

The report found that adolescents had been taking drugs for an average of 17 months before they were referred to the service.

It noted that there is “increased tolerance for cannabis use at a societal level” with the drug available in many formats including vapes and edibles.

The proportion of young people drinking alcohol last year was 35pc – down from 54pc in 2021.

There was also a reduction in the number of teenagers using cocaine – down to 9pc in 2022 from 16pc the previous year.

However, the HSE reported almost a three-fold increase in the proportion taking nitrous oxide with 22pc admitting taking the substance which is also known as “laughing gas” last year.

The report said almost 7 in 10 teenagers attending the service had a history of contact with the HSE’s Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service which reflected the extent to which young people using drugs and alcohol experienced mental health issues.

Among issues reported were attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, self-harm, suicide ideation, depression, anorexia and anxiety.

The report said the problems were compounded by the closure of schools and other services due to Covid-19 restrictions.

It claimed issues with some teenagers included absconding and indebtedness as well as holding, distributing or dealing drugs.

It noted such issues were further compounded by food and fuel poverty and accommodation insecurity or overcrowding.

The author of the report and family therapist, Denis Murray, said social media was having a big impact on the lives of young people in terms of influencing their perspectives of the world and attitudes to sex and sexuality, the role of women in society and other people’s lived experiences.

“It is distracting from other areas of life as well as disrupting sleep and exposing young people to bullying, rumour spreading and unrealistic views of the world,” said Mr Murray.

The therapist said the main challenges within communities were for parents and other adults to identify young people at risk at an early stage and to elevate concern for them by making referrals in a timely manner.

However, Mr Murray said professionals working with young people were concerned about the normalisation of drug use within society especially in relation to alcohol and cannabis.

“Given the level of tolerance for substance use within the community and petitions for the decriminalisation and legalisation of all drugs, young people are being given mixed messages with some adults not fully appreciating the consequences of substance use for young people,” said Mr Murray.

For the first time in its history, the HSE said no young person attending the service last year of compulsory school-going age was no longer in education or training.

“This marks a significant development compared to the 1990s when most young people attending the service had dropped out of secondary school in first year and many could not read or write,” it added.

The service, which is based in Cherry Orchard Hospital in Dublin, was originally established in response to the heroin crisis of the 1990s when its primary intervention was prescribing methadone to young people.

Mr Murray said 66pc of delegates at a conference to mark the service’s 25th anniversary last year had reported that young people with whom they had worked had engaged in substance use before they were 14 years with 21pc stating it had begun before the age of 12.

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