Drugs are readily available to Wearside’s schoolchildren. That is the view of a child psychiatrist who has worked with some of Sunderland’s most disturbed teens. Craig Thompson reports.
DR Stephen Westgarth has been left shocked at how easily young Wearsiders are able to access drugs.
Dr Westgarth spent six years helping teens diagnosed with extreme behavioural problems and depression.
Through his work, the consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist would regularly come across teenagers as young as 14 who were persistent cannabis users.
Dr Westgarth, now medical director of Child Psychiatry UK, said: “In my work in Sunderland I have seen a gradual increase in issues like behavioural problems and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“I have come across some quite extreme types of behavioural problems but I am particularly shocked about the access young people have to cannabis.
“This includes access within schools; in almost all schools there are young people who know where they can obtain cannabis from.
“This is a generation where being a regular smoker of cannabis at 14 years of age is not unusual. It is readily available.”
Dr Westgarth warned of the psychological impact that regular cannabis use can have in the young.
He added: “Cannabis smoking in young people is often associated with depression and mental illness; it can alter the development of children – it’s not like having a sip of wine at your aunty’s house.
“Cannabis is a psychic anaesthetic, a way of avoiding reality for many of these young people.”
Through his work with the city’s young people, Dr Westgarth would regularly hear disturbing stories about levels of drug use. He said: “I have treated young people who have taken every kind of drug that I had heard of – and some I had never heard of.
“We have to realise that in somewhere like Sunderland there are often social issues behind the drug use in young people.
“It may be there is substance misuse in the home, they are facing conflict in school or any number of other problems.
“We need to change the lifestyle around the person in order to help them.”
Dr Westgarth believes a different approach to the way some children are treated may help shift the problem.
He added: “We need to let young people be children.
“They are often caught out by the trappings of growing up too quickly – staying out late, affording expensive gadgets and clothes.
“These things are not what it means to be grown up.
“The reality is that we need to teach them about personal responsibility, self-respect and a helpful attitude towards others.
“We need to be more firm with young people. This doesn’t mean being hostile or unloving; you can set boundaries without being aggressive.”
•Anyone with drug issues can call into George’s Community Cafe, North Bridge Street, Sunderland, on weekdays before 10.30am.
‘It left me paranoid and full of self-hate’
James Cowell, 40, first started using cannabis when he was 12 years old.
His recreational use of the drug marked the beginning of a 25-year addiction to narcotics which resulted in him being diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.
Today, James, who works as a volunteer at George’s Community Cafe drop-in centre in Sunderland, said he was not surprised by the levels of access young Wearsiders have to drugs.
“Cannabis left me paranoid and full of self-hate,” he said.
“When I was a kid, there was nothing for us to do.
“We would hang around on street corners and someone would come along and offer us some tack or some green and that’s where it would start. It was a pretty bleak existence.”
James, who has lost several brothers and sisters to heroin, used cannabis until he was 25 and was also involved in taking other drugs including cocaine and crack cocaine.
The dad-of-three added: “I even tried crystal meth once but liked it too much to ever take it again.”
At 37, James managed to turn his life around after hearing he was to become a grandfather.
He now helps other drug users by telling them of his experiences.
“Now my job is my motivation, it helps keep me clean. We need to find something for these young people to do, something which will keep them away from drugs. If my story helps do that, that’s great.”