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Supporting professionals and young users need to see and acknowledge each other in the fight against substance abuse

New research at Linnaeus University points up the importance of an inclusive approach on part of teachers, therapists, and other professionals that meet young people with substance abuse problems. It is essential that each individual’s ability to develop and change – personally as well as from a learning point of view – is recognised.

The new study examines the work that is being carried out with young substance users to promote health and to prevent and remedy abuse. The study is based on interviews with 36 people working with young users at upper secondary schools and outpatient treatment facilities in Sweden.

From the interviews it emerges that health care professionals and school staff consider themselves to have an interactive advantage over the youngsters. Verbal patterns seem to cement their position as superiors setting the agenda for what the youngsters should be like in order to fit in at school and with their treatment. The researchers’ analysis shows that an inclusive approach on part of supporting professionals is crucial in order to achieve social pedagogical recognition for themselves and the youngsters alike, as well as to succeed at the goal of having the youngsters function in school and in their treatment.

"This kind of approach is also crucial for the interaction with youngsters and parents who contribute in practical ways to their child’s social pedagogical change and development. This puts demands on how upper secondary schools and outpatient treatment facilities cooperate in the organisation of work with young substance users, as well as on what kind of support staff get and how much freedom they are allowed in their practical work", says Goran Basic, associate professor at Linnaeus University and one of the researchers behind the study.

A pervasive tendency in certain previous studies is to focus on the youngsters’ personal responsibility for what choices they make, and how well they perform in school and treatment contexts. Problems arising from alcohol and drug abuse – alienation, health issues and school failure – are instead looked upon as personal problems, something that in turn opens up for individualisation in terms of personal background, behaviour, and physical, mental, and medical health. Such research is accusatory and excluding, and hampers successful treatment and improved school performance, according to Goran Basic.

"Alternative explanations seem to receive relatively little attention, for instance established inequality issues in society, bureaucratic obstacles, monitoring and social control, and degrading labelling in school, at treatment centres, and in society at large", Basic continues.

Other explanations that seem to be played down compared to the diagnostic focus on personal responsibility include the youngsters’ interpretations of their own experiences of substance use.

"There are important insights to consider here, such as 'I have unique experience that may be useful to me in the future'; 'I have learnt to handle difficult situations'; and 'I’m strong now'", says Basic.

"There is no one recipe for an inclusive approach that will always – or even usually – work. Instead, it’s all about adults’ and youngsters’ mutual recognition, produced and reproduced through a series of interactions in school and in treatment facilities", Basic concludes.

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