Young people enter AOD services often because they want to change and improve their lives. ‘Get fit and healthy’ and ‘Improve sleep’ are among the top three goals young people write on their referrals to residential withdrawal.
Many however, have experienced neglect, abuse and disadvantage which has interfered in their development, including how to take care of themselves and live a healthy lifestyle. They may not have been taught basic preventative health behaviors or exposed to the principals of nutrition, stress management and primary health.
Disadvantage, aside from meaning some young people miss out on learning the skills to care for themselves is in itself a health hazard. Young people couch surfing or sleeping in squats report higher rates of skin infections, respiratory conditions, mental health symptoms and nutritional deficiencies.
At a community level, Australians living in areas of disadvantage report higher levels of chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis and heart disease whilst experiencing greater barriers to preventative health services and medical care and lower levels of health literacy than their wealthier peers. (Australian Bureau of Statistics)
Failure to learn and develop self-care strategies can in the long term lead to a reduction in overall health-status, increased diseases, and a shortened lifespan.
Living skills & substance use
For a young person who uses substances to improve their sense of wellbeing, escape from reality or ‘forget’ problems, a decline in physical or mental health (or poorly managed ongoing health issues) can be a significant risk factor for relapse into substance use.
Growing up couch surfing in a regional country town, 16 year old Peter had never owned a toothbrush, let alone flossed. At detox he was quiet and shy, declining meals and hidden firmly behind a perpetual ‘hoodie.’ Coke seemed to be the only thing he consumed and when he finished a bottle, he had a nervous habit of gnawing on the plastic. Peter had been to detox several times before anyone asked him about his teeth. Ground back to the gums in some places, his rotting teeth prevented him from eating solid foods and smiling or talking much. Cannabis, he had discovered at an early age was the cheapest and most effective treatment for the constant pain in his mouth.
Benefits of Self-Care
From a resilience perspective, an ability to self-care, including general presentation, can assist in the establishment of positive social connections, including employment.
Long-term health outcomes can be improved when good self-care practices are established in youth (consider the impact learning to brush and floss can have on dental health down the track).
Small gains in self-care (getting immunised, buying a toothbrush and nice toothpaste, learning to cook a healthy meal) can also be gains in self-esteem and milestones in the therapeutic relationship.
In the world of youth AOD practice, for young people and clinicians, self-care therefore is the gift that keeps on giving.