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Tackling volatile substance abuse in Scotland: A training course for the social care workforce

VSA background

Information and support for young people

Young people want clear information about the boundaries under which workers operate. Young people may be reticent about talking with social workers about issues that they know may be taken further. If young people understand why there are boundaries, this can reduce the possible conflicts of trust. Likewise there should be clear statements about any behaviour and disciplinary policies and under what circumstances parents will be informed.Support and counselling should be available to all looked after young people who have been using volatile substances.

Telephone helplines and other information leaflets need to be displayed.

Scottish Healthy Care Network

The health of looked after children and young people in and leaving local authority care has received increased attention at a political and practice level in Scotland in recent years. A growing body of Scottish research is also contributing to our understanding of the health and well-being needs and issues of this vulnerable group of children and young people.

At a local practice level there have been many positive developments throughout Scotland. However, available evidence would still suggest that health outcomes remain comparatively and significantly poorer than children and young people without a history of care or being looked after.

It is therefore imperative that the health and well-being needs of children and young people in and leaving care continues to be driven forward, at a local and national level, as a key priority area for children's policy and service planning. The Scottish Healthy Care Network will be active in raising the profile of health as it relates to looked after children and young people in and leaving care and in doing so will provide a strong voice in influencing health policy, planning and practice at a local and national level in Scotland.

The network is concerned with identifying and disseminating relevant material on good practice, innovation, policy, research and resources and with creating opportunities for debate and the facilitation of ideas and information (see Scottish Healthy Care Network, SIRCC, University of Strathclyde).

Relationship to later drug use

The study Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England in 20031 found that those who had taken volatile substances by the age of 13 were over twice as likely as those who had not, to have taken Class A drugs in the previous year (16% compared with 7% respectively).

Two American studies demonstrated a strong correlation between early inhalant use and problematic drug use in later life.2, 3

Relationship to crime

26% of serious persistent offenders had used volatile substances, and 19% of lifetime minor offenders.

In 1999 Re-Solv undertook a survey within Werrington Young Offenders Institute (YOI) on behalf of the HM Inspector of Prisons. The survey found that 42% of the sample had used volatile substances. 30% were aware of volatile substance abuse within the YOI particularly with regard to petrol. Discussions with the staff revealed that there had been a serious VSA related incident in the month before the survey. The survey was followed by recommendations to improve screening and staff training.

ASSET was introduced in 2000 as a common structured assessment profile across the youth justice system in England and Wales. Analysis of the assessments showed that 12% of young offenders admitted to having used solvents. This compares with 13% who admitted to using a Class A drug, the most common of which was ecstasy which 10% reported using. Amongst young offenders completing pre-sentence reports, 18% had used volatile substances compared with 20% having used Class A drugs.

The Home Office study A Road to Ruin, looked at the chronology of offending and drug using behaviour. This is important evidence in establishing whether drugs can be a gateway into criminal behaviour. The study found that criminal behaviour tended to precede drug use. The average age for onset of crime was 14.5 years compared with 16.2 years for drugs generally and 19.9 years for hard drugs. The average of onset for volatile substance abuse was 14.1 years, i.e. just preceding the onset of criminal behaviour, suggesting that it could be a gateway into criminal behaviour. Re-Solv has press reports of over 674 individual court cases where VSA is mentioned within the context of the behaviour of the defendant or defendants over a period of 9 years. The list includes 26 prosecutions for murder. These reports highlight that there is a wide diversity of incidents and a high proportion of very serious offences including rape and murder. This may suggest that this reporting is only the tip of the iceberg, as “less interesting” cases will receive less press attention. Alternatively, it may suggest that volatile substances have a marked impact upon behaviour, particularly anti-social and criminal behaviour. There are also a significant number of repeat offenders. Reports from 2005 included several individuals charged with over 50 offences.

There does not appear to be any recent Scottish data on the specific relationship between VSA and crime or delinquency. However, in press reports filed with Re-Solv there have been several recent reports of people in their 20’s and 30’s charged with a variety of crimes, some of whom had been abusing solvents since their early teens and were also currently addicted to heroin.

Background – key points

  1. National Centre for Social Research / National Foundation for Educational Research (2004) Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England in 2003 London: Department of Health.
  2. Bennett, M. et al. (2000) ‘Relationship of early inhalant use to substance use in college students’ Journal of Substance Abuse.
  3. Johnson, E. et al. (1995) ‘Inhalants to heroin: a prospective analysis from adolescence to adulthood’ Drug and Alcohol Dependence.