Dancing with death: young people’s pathways in and out of substance abuse

Daley, K 2014, Dancing with death: young people’s pathways in and out of substance abuse, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Global, Urban and Social Sciences, RMIT University.

Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Dancing with death: young people’s pathways in and out of substance abuse
Author(s) Daley, K
Year 2014
Abstract Many young people use alcohol and other drugs (AOD), but few do so to the point that professional intervention is required. This research sought to answer the question of how some young people come to experience problematic substance use.

In lots of AOD research, there is the underpinning normative claim that drug use always causes problems, so these researchers do not often ask how drug use becomes problematic. Another body of literature has sought to identify ‘risk factors’, ‘protective factors’ or ‘structural determinants’ (Hawkins, Catalano & Miller 1992; Mason et al 2011; Loxley et al. 2004). These studies identify key markers that differentiate young people who experience problematic substance use from those young people who do not. However, these studies do not explain why only some people who have these risk factors go on to develop a substance abuse problem. In my view, an adequate explanation of why some people develop problematic substance use must explicate the link between structural factors and human agency. This is the core contention of this thesis.

In order to explain the link between structural factors and human agency, I adopt a biographical approach. A biographical approach gives particular attention to the relationship between structure and agency, and the role of situated choices in people’s lives. It also draws attention to the fact that young people with substance abuse issues are not a homogeneous group, and it contends that most human action – including substance abuse – is purposeful.

In-depth interviews were undertaken with 61 young people aged 14 to 24 who had substance abuse problems. They were recruited through two services that provide assistance to young people with alcohol and other drug issues in the state of Victoria, Australia.

We meet the young people when they were engaging in extreme risk-taking behaviours and then trace their journey from their early childhood, through their school years into unemployment, homelessness and crime. This shows that many of the young men and women had ‘troubled childhoods’, marked by considerable disadvantage. Nonetheless, I point out that these were not drug problems and troubled childhoods do not necessarily cause substance abuse.

Further analysis shows gender difference in the pathway into problematic substance use. Among the young women, there were strong links between childhood sexual abuse, abandonment, self-injury and then substance abuse. Whereas for men, it was the role of masculinity which characterised their pathway into heavy drug use. Nonetheless, both young men and women were using substances for similar purposes. The thesis concludes with a discussion about the implications of these findings for policy and practice.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Global, Urban and Social Sciences
Keyword(s) Substance abuse
Childhood trauma
Sexual abuse
Youth homelessness
Structural inequality
Qualitative research
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Created: Wed, 19 Aug 2015, 10:47:09 EST by Denise Paciocco
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