Do fathers access support when they have a substance user in their family?

21 November 2005

Adfam is a national organisation working with families affected by drug and alcohol misuse.

In December 2004 Fathers Direct and Adfam carried out a survey across 280 services that provide support for families affected by someone else’s substance misuse to find out if fathers access and engage in these services.

Adfam was founded in 1986 by a mother of a heroin user, as are the majority of local support services in this field. These support groups primarily help families who have a problematic drug user in their family. Therefore the survey intended to find out what support was available for fathers and if they accessed it.

The response rate was low, reinforcing our anecdotal evidence that fathers may be isolated from support or where it is available they do not engage in current provision.

Having a drug user in the family can have a devastating impact on family life, arousing complex emotions, dividing family members, and weakening the very foundations upon which family units are built. Therefore it’s important that all family members, including fathers should have a choice of support that they can access.

The survey responses gave Adfaman insight into services experience of working with fathers.

• “I’m a parent support worker but most of my work is with mums. I think it would be really helpful to work with dads. Mums and Dads have different issues and need to understand each other.”

• “We run a support group but it’s all mothers. Fathers are always welcome, but they seem to put on a brave face to protect their wives/partners – they don’t deal with their own issues”

• “In our friends and families support group we’ve found fathers to be as concerned and involved as mothers”

The last comment is somewhat unrepresentative of the majority but is very positive – and a key task is to understand how the experience of this group is so different from the others’? Is it the community served? Is it the facilitator? Is it the strategies used by the programme to reach out to fathers? Adfam believes that fathers are indeed as concerned about drug use in their families, and although research shows that, overall, fathers are less likely to engage in support services, it is clear that when conditions are right they will engage, and engage with gusto. It is time to look at more imaginative ways to support fathers effectively.

Do support services want to work with fathers?

When the survey asked support services if they would like to engage and work with fathers the responses were very encouraging. Service providers are aware of the importance of supporting fathers and are keen to develop father friendly services.

• “We are really keen to improve our engagement strategies – increasing proportion of fathers accessing services. If we talk to mum about how dad feels this sometimes helps”

• “I would like to see more fathers accessing our service. There are many reasons why fathers are less likely to seek help, particularly the desire to keep things in the family.”

• “We would like fathers to feel more able to join our group meeting. I would like to enable fathers to show their emotions and feelings and work through them in a non-judgemental, caring and compassionate way.

It seems that services realise that fathers have support needs, and are keen to fulfil these. The difficulties in engaging with fathers seem mainly to arise from “not knowing how”. The key is for services to think about fathers support needs and how they might work more effectively with this client group – and help is at hand. Fathers Direct’s highly regarded Six-Step Guide to engaging with fathers (“Working with Fathers – a Guide for Everyone Working With Families”) sets out the basic principles, and Adfam and Fathers Direct are, together, preparing an Annexe to this Guide which will look at the issues for service delivery in the field of substance abuse.

See the practice section for a case study highlighting a service in Sheffield that supports fathers affected by problematic drug use in their family.

Adfam and Fathers Direct are running training days on how to engage fathers more effectively in family support services. Email for more on these courses.

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