It’s a Saturday night in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The music is throbbing and the pulsating lights from the DJ’s deck send a kaleidoscope of colours throughout the hall.
Party-goers mill around as they are checked at the door for drugs and alcohol before being let in. Security is being made to work for their money to ensure nothing illicit gets past them.
Just another party scene one might think until you realise that this is a Sweet 16 party and the guests are all between the ages of 15 and 17.
It’s a well-known fact that just as every younger generation pushes the boundaries, every older generation seems to forget their own indiscretions and disapprove of those coming after them. But is there a point at which the boundaries are pushed too far? In relation to drug-taking, a new trend seems to pose threats to the health of younger and younger people.
Drug-taking is not new, but popular perception tends to associate it with certain groups – the down and out, the desperate or alternatively, highly successful achievers with a drug-fuelled lifestyle and more money than sense.
How do we reconcile this emerging group of very young, middle-class children into this spectrum? Increasingly anecdotal evidence from those who inhabit this world indicates that young people aged 14 to 17 from the affluent middle-class are using recreational drugs.
It’s difficult to understand or even identify this trend from statistics. Ora Landmann, Youth Drug and Alcohol advisor at the Youth Drug and Alcohol Advice service (YoDAA), points to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013, which identifies that the age at which people first tried an illicit drug increased from 19 in 2010 to 19.4 in 2013.
This statistic masks what many young people and parents know is happening on the ground. Many parents of underage children have real fears about what their children will encounter at an underage party on any given Friday or Saturday night. Online pictures of young people with wide eyes and dilated pupils sucking on lollypops – both sure signs of ecstacy use – do nothing to reduce these fears.
Landmann also identifies the Statewide Youth Needs Census (SYNC) – a landmark study dealing with drugs and young people. However, SYNC measures the substance abuse patterns of young people already registered as clients of specialist youth alcohol and other drug treatment services in Victoria in 2013 and therefore would never pick up this new phenomenon where their parents are more likely to try and deal with it themselves or pay for private counselling.
What is driving this emerging trend? Why are the children of comfortable middle-class families – whose parents work hard to provide all the creature comforts for their offspring – turning to this risky behaviour at a younger and younger age?
Will Broxham, a 17-year-old eastern suburbs, has witnessed it. “It’s shocking to see some of the people taking these drugs as many of them come from solid foundations where they have a happy family, go to a good school and have no history of mental illness or psychological disorders.”
However, Craig Farrell, public relations representative from the Salvation Army, says the focus shouldn’t be on the child’s economic status. “Young people in privileged families are also not necessarily excluded from suffering in life as drug use occurs across all socio-economic groups.”
Farrell’s view is backed by academic studies. Researchers Suniya Luthar and Shawn Latendresse reported in 2005 that upper-class children can have problems with substance use, anxiety, and depression.
“Whereas stereotypically, affluent youth and poor youth are respectively thought of as being at low risk and high risk, comparative studies have revealed more similarities than differences in their adjustment patterns and socialization processes,” the academics wrote.
Farrell says, in his experience, drug taking is often “around peer pressure and wanting to be part of the party culture”.
Will Broxham agrees. “I feel as though peer pressure does play a large role in making these people turn to drugs.”
Ora Landmann also pointed to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2013, which identified that “of people aged 14 or older, the most common reason that an illicit substance was first used was curiosity (66 per cent), followed by wanting to do something exciting (19.2 per cent) and wanting to enhance an experience (13.3 per cent).
Broxham concurs. “I think the reason they take these drugs is because they are wanting to have a bit of excitement and might even be for the thrill of taking drugs knowing the consequences of their actions. A bit of boredom could also come into play as some of them take recreational drugs like weed to almost give them something to do.
“Usually the drugs they take is mainly stuff such as weed or marijuana, he says. “In rare cases I’ve known of people taking harder drugs such as ketamine and pingers (ecstacy). They usually smoke weed in small groups on weekends or just at a mate’s house for a bit of fun. Harder drugs usually get taken at parties or before going out to a social event.”
Broxham says it is not that hard for a young person to get drugs. “Many more people are doing it and there must be an easily locatable community that all these people are getting in touch with. Those that just start also have connections and eventually down the line one of those will link up with someone in contact of drugs.”
It’s now midnight and the line of mostly four-wheel drives snakes around to pick up the young party-goers. As their children climb into their parents’ cars, happy and excited after their evening out, their parents will no doubt be breathing a sigh of relief that on this occasion they get to tuck their children into bed unaffected by the dangers that lurk in the shadows.
If you or someone you know is suffering from substance/drug abuse you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.