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Dec 2011 by PCI College

Free Public Lecture - Stephen Rowen on Family and Addiction

As part of our 20 Year Anniversary Celebrations, we have organised a series of Free Public Lectures. Our Guest Lecturers are well-known within the Mental Health field and they are covering themes that we hope will be of interest to you. This year to add to the events, we will be having a drinks reception afterwards to give us all a chance to socialise and catch up.

**Please note, this lecture took place on the 7th Dec 2011** 

Last October we had Rolande Anderson, The National Alcohol Project Director for the Irish College of General Practitioners discussing Problem Drinking and Mental Health. This lecture was very well attended and it touched on the fact that problem drinkers destroy not just themselves but their loved ones too. Millions of families are trapped by alcohol-related patterns of behaviour with devastating consequences for their mental health, well-being and safety. It was apparent from the Q&A session after the lecture that in mentioning the impact on the family, Rolande had touched on a prevalent issue within Ireland. With this in mind, we decided that as a matter of public interest, we would look at this topic again.

Hence, our first Public Lecture this year is with Stephen Rowen on Family and Addiction. Rowen is a native of Boston, Massachusetts where he grew up in an Irish American family. After studying History he then went on to earn a master’s degree from the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work where he was trained as a community organizer with a special emphasis on assisting local citizen groups mobilize for better health care.

His career in addiction services began in 1975 when was he selected to be the director of Day One, Maine’s first adolescent addiction treatment programme in Portland. Stephen and his family first lived in Ireland in 1978 when he was named administrator of Rutland Centre – the first Minnesota Model residential treatment centre in Ireland. His retirement as Director of The Rutland Centre in the summer of 2008 was with a view to devoting more time to teaching, training, clinical supervision & in order to establish a private psychotherapy practice. Stephen also continues to be a spokesperson on societal issues and public policy as these pertain to addiction and substance misuse in Ireland.

After Rowen appeared on an RTE programme High Society, Ian O ‘Doherty of the Irish Independent noted:

“The one notable exception to the dubious hyperbole was Stephen Rowen of the Rutland Centre......Rowen is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and by far the most interesting and reasonable figure on the anti-drug side. The only anti-drug campaigner who refuses to take the "Chicken Licken" approach, he has an undoubted and admirable concern for the victims of addiction. But he is also brave enough to admit that the vast majority of people who try charley go about their day perfectly well and that the proportion of people who become hooked could be as low as 1 in 12. Or it could be higher. As he said himself, we simply don't know.”

Recent media reports that Ireland has the highest proportion of heroin users in the European Union – a recent report from the EU Commission has revealed that 8 in 1000 Irish people are heroin users compared to an EU Average of 4 in 1000 users - is indeed a shocking revelation . But if we are going to have a debate about addiction on the whole, we owe it to people to at least talk about it honestly and thoughtfully, rather than sensationalizing it. We must investigate the effect of addiction not just on the individual but on the Family and Society as a whole.

The amount of suffering experienced by Irish families due to addiction is immense. Struggles with various forms of addiction usually focus on the person who is directly in trouble with a particular chemical or behaviour. However, long ago researchers discovered that for each and every person in trouble with addiction there are usually four others who suffer as family or as close friends.

In the Irish Examiner, Rowen has warned that Society is in denial about the impact of addiction on families who regularly struggle to cope while the addict obtains professional help.  The "neglected majority" of people impacted by addiction were the addict’s family, and that while the family might be "in bits," the overwhelming support was for the person either still addicted, or sober or in treatment.

"One of my points is, we need to shift the balance. We still have a society-wide attitude that if the addict is "fixed", the family will be grand. You hear people saying "He’s a great guy, he’s off the drink." The perception is once the drinking stops, everything is fine, but the reality is the spouse or the small child is often more damaged than the addict," Rowen stated.

Family members often switched into "rescue mode", protecting the addict from the natural consequences of their own condition.

"Sometimes, with absolute love and good intentions, families actually enable things to go on and get worse, instead of minding their own feelings and becoming aware of what’s happening to them. If they focus on minding themselves, the addict is more likely to hit rock bottom and the family will be freer to talk about their experience,"

Addiction is a "devastating illness" and society needs to find ways to spike the notion that it is an individual issue. But there is hope. Not only is change possible, it is highly likely if the addict enters the change process professionals and others refer to as recovery. With appropriate help, families can recover too, sometimes with the person who has the actual addiction and sometimes separately. Not only can they get their health back, it is possible for families of addicts to break out of the trap and regain control of their lives and aspirations

Stephen Rowen now co-facilitates The RISE Foundation’s Family Programmes with Frances Black. The RISE Foundation is dedicated to assisting families to understand the nature of addiction and the profound effects it has on relationships. Using a new programme of assessment, education, counselling and peer support, the RISE counsellors have designed an education programme to help change the way that addiction is understood in family systems.

This lecture took place on Wednesday the 7th Dec 2011.

Maria McGrath
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