Children as young as 8 starting to smoke cannabis
Irish schoolchildren as young as eight are experimenting with drugs, leading to problems by their early teens, a leading psychiatrist has warned.
Dr Gerry McCarney, who works with the young person's programme at the National Drug Treatment Centre (NDTC), said it was not unusual to meet young people who began smoking cannabis as young as eight or 10.
The psychiatrist, who deals with young drug-takers under the SASSY Project Dublin, (Substance Abuse Service Specific to Youth), warned that large numbers of young children could be falling under the radar when it comes to drugs and alcohol experimentation.
"It's not unusual for me to meet a young person who began smoking cannabis for instance at the age of 10. And that's a worry," he said.
"I think the youngest person we have worked with was 11, when they came into us. Obviously they had started using sometime before that. Certainly we have quite a few people who would have begun drug use earlier than that. I think the earliest that someone indicated they had begun dabbling with cannabis was eight," he added.
He called for a greater level of drug awareness education to be rolled out in national schools around the country.
Dr McCarney said the worry was that there are "quite a lot of very young people out there who are dabbling" and who are not being treated by any services.
He pointed to American studies which state that children between the ages of eight and 13 begin to see the beneficial effects of drugs or alcohol without seeing the risks.
"If we are waiting until after that to educate them we are missing the boat. They were certainly suggesting that education in schools should pre-date that and I have to say I can see no reason to disagree with it," he added.
Dr McCarney, who is the clinical lead for the young person's programme for opiate dependence at the NDTC, said that developmentally children learn to experiment significantly earlier than they learn to assess situations and risks.
"It's like a car with a fully functioning accelerator but the brakes aren't working properly," he added.
Speaking in Galway as part of the 2015 Regional Drug and Alcohol Awareness Week, he said society needs to get across a simple message to children, and this must be backed up by further education. "We need to get across that whatever you do as you grow up and whatever people are telling you to do, you need to stand back and make your own decisions about what is safe," he added.
Dr McCarney said peer influence played a major role in young people's decision-making, adding that for a time peer groups become more important than family and community. The power of social media also has a huge input and is a daily influence.
The psychiatrist said the onus was on families to be aware of changing trends in drug and alcohol use in order to keep up with what is happening. Parents should also get a sense of who their children's friends are and keep communication open.
Speaking about the impact of drug use in young people, he said it can cause developmental problems, may slow down or prevent further maturation, and impact on ability to function and learn.
"The brain is like a construction site, if you have your parties too early it's not going to be ready. The big message is it's OK to wait and grow up a bit," he added.
Dr McCarney said the SASSY project is currently at full capacity with a significant amount of demand not being catered for. He said there is an inconsistent level of services around the country for young drug users.