'Once you're that isolated you feel there's no way back' - expert on the 'heartbreaking' reality of being a drug-user
'We asked people who used drugs simple questions to get a general feel... the answers were heartbreaking'
Stigma and isolation are two of the biggest issues facing people who use drugs, an expert has said.
Hannah Rodrigues, a co-ordinator with the Union for Improved Services, Communication and Education (UISCE), has called for better education about drugs so that people feel more confident saying 'no' .
Rodrigues also wants to help break down some of the harmful stereotypes about addiction.
UISCE is recognised by the State as the representative body for people who use drugs and was part of the team behind the new National Drug Strategy - Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery.
The group has been operational for 25 years and psychologists use their peer-led outreach to provide an impartial and unbiased voice for people who use drugs.
Rodrigues now speaks candidly about the importance of listening to people who use drugs.
She told Independent.ie: "We asked 70 people who used drugs simple questions to get a general feel and one of the things we asked them was what would make today better for them and what would make tomorrow better.
"100 per cent of the responses were about social isolation, the answers were heartbreaking.
"One man said that today he would like to make a new friend and tomorrow he would like to bump into an old friend.
"Another woman said today she would like her partner to be with her and tomorrow she wishes she had someone to go with her to her partner's funeral.
"This is the level of isolation that the stigma of using drugs has put on people, once you're that isolated you can feel like there's no way back into society.
"We somehow have to work with the wider community so they can see that people who use drugs are people first and come from families and that addiction is a health issue."
She reported that "very few" people under the age of 18 are injecting opiates – the largest group of users are in the 30-50 year old age range.
And as harm reduction services become more effective, people are able to live longer with an addiction.
Rodrigues said: "We do have a group of people who are older and use drugs and they have the same problems as other people who are getting older.
"One of the things in relation to drug-related deaths is that the women are generally older than the men, we've been speaking to as many women as we can to try and find out why.
"One element is that when women are pregnant they are so supported - there's midwives to support people with addiction and further supports when they go home.
"As their children grow up they have them as company but what we're finding is that when the children become adults and move out they might slip into old habits.
"They aren't using at home because that's the family space so they're using on the street.
"While we are providing people that support we need to also provide with the skills and resilience to maintain everyday lives that people who don't use drugs have."
She also addressed the issue of how we could provide better information to young people about drugs.
She said: "We worked with a lot of people to help them complete the survey for the National Drugs Strategy last October and one of the really interesting things was that every person was interested in education about drugs and feel it should start as young as possible.
"Someone told me that in the country they're from you're taught from a young age that you don't touch kettles because they're hot and you touch syringes because they are dangerous.
"We know that the education should be there but not how it should look, evidence tells us that fear-based education does not work and that's what we use.
"We see the gruesome after-effects and warnings not to take drugs but what we're not doing is giving people the skills to say no, we need to empower and support young people so they can build their confidence enough to say no."
Rodrigues stressed how important it is that we have a people-centred approach to drugs.
She said: "What we do is a bit different, the traditional model of service-user engagement is to have someone who is or was a drug user and bring them to every meeting so they can give their opinion.
"We think it's more effective to have peer-led outreach, which is a lot of active drug users linking in with their community and finding out information.
"We make sure we have a really broad demographic and we would ask them everything that would affect operational guidelines and then we know that all of the information is coming directly from people who use drugs and not a service or agency, there's no agenda."
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