Protecting youth at risk

“I grew up with both my parents in the home, they cared about me, they wanted the best for me, but they gave me a credit card and a car and by the time I was 21, I was hooked on drugs.”

Gary Hopkins is a doctor at the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University in California, but he is not your average academic delivering a paper at an international conference on substance abuse and drug dependency. He has lived the experience and now works to find ways to protect children from dangerous behaviours.

In his presentation to the 10th International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency Conference in Cape Town last week, Hopkins encouraged delegates to look beyond the problems of substance abuse and dependency among youth. He said the problems were well known, but what could help make a difference was to identify what factors helped protect youngsters from becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol, and why some teenagers were more resilient than others and emerged relatively unscathed from high risk backgrounds.

The consistent factor that has emerged from his research is the importance of relationships.

Young adults who came from high risk groups said that what helped them most when growing up was the presence of a parent, or teacher, or significant adult who believed in them.

Hopkins said the risk factors that he had identified in the USA which made children more vulnerable than others included membership of a minority group, a low level of maternal education, a family size of four or more children, an absent father, stressful life events such as job losses or death in the family and high levels of maternal anxiety.

“Connectedness is all important,” said Hopkins. Referring to a national longitudinal study of adolescent health in the United States, he said that children who reported feeling connected to a parent were protected against many different kinds of risks. These risks included emotional distress, suicidal thoughts and attempts, the use of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana, violent behaviour and early sexual activity.

Schools were important areas where teenagers should be made to feel accepted and part of a community.

“What works is for parents and adults to communicate clearly stated values to children,” said Hopkins. “Kids need to be kept busy, to be supervised and to be mentored. The problem is not bad kids, bad teachers or bad schools, it is uninvolved communities and uninvolved adults.”

Hopkins urged researchers to look not only at the problems, but to examine the success stories, where teenagers were able to lead productive, meaningful lives in spite of their backgrounds and environments.

“We need to look at why some kids are more resilient than others, why do they manage to emerge from high risk neighbourhoods and backgrounds. When kids are successful it is invariably because there are people who care for them – a grandparent, sometimes a parent – often it?s not even a family member.”

Hopkins acknowledges that it sounds almost simplistic to say that relationships are all important and says of course there are other factors, but he maintains that relationships are of central importance.

“I say to people, don?t look past it because it?s simple. Start with it, develop it, refine it. You?ve got to come to terms with the fact that that?s where it looks like the solutions exist.” – health-e news service.

Watch this space for further reports from the 10th World Congress of ICPA (International Commission for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Dependency) held in Cape Town, January 26-30, 2000.

Listen to Gary Hopkins …


  • Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

    Bibi-Aisha is an award-winning journalist whose career spans working in radio, television, and development. Previously, she worked for eNCA as a specialist science reporter, and the SABC as the Middle East foreign correspondent, and SAfm current affairs anchor. Her work has appeared on Al-Jazeera, The British Medical Journal, The Guardian, IPS, Nature, and Daily News Egypt. She’s been awarded reporting fellowships from the Africa-China Reporting Project, Reuters Foundation, National Press Foundation, International Women’s Media Foundation. Pfizer/SADAG, and the World Federation of Science Journalists. She’s currently an Atlantic Tekano Fellow For Health Equity 2021.

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