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New HRB study explores impact of problem drug use on affected family members

Researchers at the Health Research Board (HRB) have published a study in the journal ‘Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy’ on ‘affected family members’ – individuals who are impacted by the problem use of drugs, alcohol or other addiction of a family member, friend or colleague.

Graphical representation of affected family members

Based on routine data from the National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS), this is the first study of its kind in Ireland or internationally. It aims to describe characteristics of affected family members seeking treatment in their own right, and the support they receive. The HRB is uniquely placed to carry out this kind of analysis, as the NDTRS has collected information on affected family members since 2010. 

Over an 11-year period, the NDTRS recorded almost 14,000 referrals for affected family members seeking treatment. The findings demonstrate the substantial demand for services for this group, highlighting in particular the need for services for women, children, and young adults. The study authors note that the true extent of treatment need is likely much greater, as returning this data was optional, and some affected family members will have accessed services outside the scope of NDTRS, while others may be trying to cope alone or relying on informal support systems such as friends. 

Commenting on the study, HRB Chief Executive Dr Mairéad O’Driscoll said: “Over the last ten years, there has been growing recognition in Ireland and internationally of the specific needs of affected family members. As we have collected this data through the NDTRS since 2010, the HRB can provide valuable evidence to inform future policy and service planning.” 

Main findings: 
  • 8 in 10 of those referred for treatment were females, and 4 in 10 were females aged 35-54 years. 
  • Children and young adults each accounted for 6.5% of referrals. Half of all children referred were 15 years old or younger. 
  • 6 in 10 of the adults referred were living with children, while 9 in 10 children referred lived with family. 
  • Almost half of all adults referred were in paid employment; almost one in five were unemployed; one in eight were homemakers; and one in ten were in education or training.
  • 3 in 4 referrals were made to outpatient settings.
  • Over 6 in 10 adults self-referred, while over 4 in 10 children were referred through social/community services, and 4 in 10 by family/friends. 
  • Individual counselling and brief intervention were the main treatments for adults and children. 
  • Half of the adults spent 120 days or longer in group counselling; half of the children spent 165 days or longer engaged in individual education/awareness programmes. 

Cathy Kelleher, HRB Research Officer and lead author of the report, underlined the broader significance of the research, saying: “Our findings highlight some of the hidden harms of problem substance use and other addictions. There is a ripple effect – for every person with a substance or other addiction, multiple others may be impacted. Their family, friends and colleagues will often need support in their own right, as international studies have shown that the stress they experience can negatively impact their physical and mental health, and that they often face barriers to seeking help such as stigma, shame or fear.


Read the study: ‘Characteristics of affected family members seeking treatment in their own right: A secondary analysis of existing Irish health data for 2010 to 2020’