Children do not have a choice in the kind of home environment they are raised in. But as a community, we have a choice in the kind of community environment that supports them
By Agnes Chen, Starlings Community Founder – My first memory of experiencing the stigma of a parent’s substance use would have been at the age of 5 or 6, when the reaction of first responders filled me with intense shame, fear, and sadness, and informed me that it was not safe for me or my family to seek out support.
Over time, it became apparent that these experiences of discrimination were not isolated events in my life, and that stigma was an unacknowledged contributing factor to intergenerational cycles of stress and substance use disorder in impacted families across Canada. Today, as a registered nurse, peer, and founder of Starlings Community, I use my personal and professional experiences to advocate for more compassion and support for youth and families who have been impacted by the stress and stigma of a family member’s substance use.
Protecting and healing children
Starlings Community is a not-for-profit in Canada whose mission is to protect the health and promote the healing of children exposed to the stress and stigma (adverse childhood experiences) related to a parent’s substance use through knowledge mobilization, peer support, and advocacy.
Inspired by my own story with a parent’s substance use and fueled by the stories and support of peers across Canada, our primary goal is to decrease the internalized shame youth feel while increasing their hope for a better tomorrow. Although considered by many in the children and substance use health field an emerging issue, the challenges children face and the risk to their mental health are certainly not new, as indicated by 30-year-old adverse childhood experiences studies, highlighting substance use stigma’s effect on generations of children.
In Canada, it is estimated that 18-20% of children are exposed to a parent’s substance use disorder
In Canada, it is estimated that 18-20% of children are exposed to a parent’s substance use disorder, with evidence indicating that impacted youth are at double to triple the risk for suicide, mental illness, and substance use disorder (SUD) than the general population (Starlings Community INC, 2022). This risk is often attributed to a parent’s behaviours, emotions, and substance use. However, I invite our community to consider the consequences of substance use stigma on a parent’s health and behaviours, as well as on their children’s well-being.
Barriers to recovery
For example, up to 80% of people with a SUD are known to meet barriers to recovery, including stigma, lack of support and not knowing what supports are available, limiting the opportunities to address the root causes of a substance use disorder and to increase a parent’s capacity for healthier substance use and nurturing parenting practices. Similarly, in addition to witnessing and experiencing overt discrimination themselves, stigma also prevents children whose parents have a SUD from accessing family and community protective factors which could mitigate the risk of adverse childhood experiences.
Family cohesion, mental health support, and community resources are known to offer protection to children experiencing adversity. However, in today’s society, children who seek out support are at increased risk of being removed from their homes, their parents being criminalized, and whole families marginalized, as indicated by the over-representation of impacted youth within the child welfare system, the number of impacted parents within the criminal justice system, and the many stories of youth and adults who shared their fears with us.
As described by Canadian youth in a 2021 Starlings Community Questionnaire:
“I want people to know the level of shame the entire family feels, the struggle of loving someone who hurts you but doesn’t want to, how much criminalization hurts.” Anonymous, Age 18-24, Canada
“It’s not always safe to tell someone”
“It’s not always safe to tell someone, especially when the systems can’t always guarantee your safety.” Anonymous, age 18-24 Canada
“When your parents and family are using it’s so much easier to go down the same path because those are the coping mechanisms that you see and learn. And that when you’re in active addiction you don’t want to be there, you don’t want to be doing all the bad things you’re doing. It hurts, all the time, physically, mentally, and emotionally…”… but it’s so hard to get out because the drug is what provides the relief, even though it’s short-lived. And your brain gets so fried you can’t think any farther into the future than how you feel in that moment. and it’s hard to get help because it’s scary.” Anonymous, age 18-24,
“Its hard to get help because it’s scary”
“The stigma surrounding addiction has affected me and my healing greatly. Whenever I share my story people have a changed view of me as if I chose to be in that situation as a child. And this makes it extremely difficult t open up to mental health professionals because of the fear of judgment.” Anonymous, age 18-24, Toronto, ON
Canadian youth and adults also shared what helped them on their healing journeys, providing a unique voice not often provided and one which must be prioritized:
“Seeking help from a therapist or counselor.” Anonymous, Age 14-18, Canada
“Self-love & compassion, self-awareness, trauma-informed education.” Anonymous, Age 24-35, Ontario, Canada
“I did not know I needed help back then. It’s much easier to talk to someone as an adult than it was as a kid because now I know I should not have grown up in that kind of environment.” Anonymous, Age 18-24, Canada
“Seeing and hearing other people’s trauma has really helped me”
“Seeing and hearing other people’s trauma has really helped me get through and actually want help.” Anonymous Age 18-25, Canada
“Therapy, supportive friends, reconnecting with and learning to understand my mom on my own terms.” Anonymous, Age 18-24, Vancouver Canada
“Learning to not feel it’s my fault.” Anonymous, Age 18-24, Canada
“Getting in touch with my indigenous roots. Being more connected with family.” Anonymous, Age 18-24, Montreal, Canada
Although the journey to preventing adverse health outcomes in impacted youth may not be quick or easy, it does require a genuine commitment from our leaders and whole communities.
This commitment must include:
- the discomfort of exploring our individual and organizational biases and assumptions about people who have a substance use disorder, and how these assumptions may influence the vulnerability of children and youth
- the creation of opportunities for youth to feel safe enough to share their stories without fear
- and ultimately, it must increase the compassion and support youth have access to and feel which can increase their ability to move forward with hope and healing.
I believe that children do not have a choice in the kind of home environment they are raised in, but as a community, we have a choice in the kind of community environment that supports them.
Learn more at www.starlings.ca
Read .pdf document: A New Path Forward: a Starlings community report highlighting the harm imposed on children who are exposed to the stigma of a parent’s drug or alcohol use, and recommendations for a new path forward