Family experiences and the role of the family in the development of substance use in adolescents and young adults in Zimbabwe: a qualitative study

Master Thesis


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Background Mental disorders including substance use disorders are a leading cause of disease burden, contributing 16% of the global burden of disease in young people aged 10 to 19 years. Substance use in adolescents and young people cannot be viewed outside of the family system. The family may influence the development of substance use problems in young people and the family system is an important part of recovery. The burden of substance use on family members is, however, often overlooked with emphasis being placed on the need to involve families in treatment of individuals using substances but little said about care for the family members themselves. There is need for a better understanding of the experiences of family members affected by substance use in young people and their own perceptions of the family's role in influencing adolescents' substance use. This study aimed to explore the experiences of families who have dealt with adolescent psychoactive substance use and their perceptions on how families can influence the development or avoidance of substance use in young people. Methods This was an exploratory qualitative study eliciting the experiences of nineteen family members dealing with substance use in young people aged less than 24 years purposively sampled from families of young people being managed for substance-related conditions at a tertiary mental health unit in Harare, Zimbabwe. Potential participants were identified using admission and outpatient registers and invited to take part in the study. In-depth interviews were conducted in Shona or English using a semi-structured interview guide exploring the experiences of family members dealing with substance use in a young person as well as their perceptions on the role of the family in development of substance use. The interviews were voice recorded, transcribed verbatim and the data were analysed in NVivo 12 using the framework approach. Ethical approval was granted from the University of Cape Town, Faculty of Health Sciences Human Research Ethics Committee and the Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe and the Institutional Ethics Review Boards for Harare Central Hospital. Results Five themes emerged from the data namely: Perceived causes of substance use in young people; Discovery of the substance use; Impact of the substance use; Family coping strategies and Family suggested interventions. Substance use by a young person affected family life, affecting family members and siblings emotionally, causing conflict in the family and burdening the family finances. Family members struggled with physical health problems; emotional distress, fear; helplessness; hopelessness; guilty, stigma and isolation, social and occupational consequences as a result of substance use by a young person in the family. Families also described various ways in which they attempted to cope with the challenges with spirituality highlighted as a key coping strategy. Participants suggested the family can be a mitigating factor against substance use in young people through having a better understanding about substance use, improved communication; providing an emotionally supportive home environment; creating healthier value systems in the family; actively supervising and monitoring of young people; encouraging young people to engage in meaningful work; facilitating admission for medical rehabilitation when needed as well as providing spiritual support. Conclusion There is a substantial but hidden burden of substance use on families and caregivers. This study illustrates the need for health services to provide better support for affected families, improving access to care and support for family members of young people using substances at risky levels. Further research is needed to explore how existing frameworks for structured support may be adapted for and implemented in the local setting. Substance use, particularly in young people, remains a family condition and the family needs to be not only included in treatment of young people but to be cared for themselves as well.