Painful inheritance – NACOA’s annual lecture 2016

NACOA’s (the National Association for Children of Alcoholics)

NACOA’s (the National Association for Children of Alcoholics) annual lecture at the House of Commons set out an action plan to give the issue the public profile it deserves. DDN reports

The children of alcoholics were ‘the innocent victims of booze, who never ask for the pain they suffer’, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Children of Alcoholics, Liam Byrne MP, told delegates at NACOA’s David Stafford Memorial Lecture.

All children of alcoholics grew up experiencing insecurity, shame, guilt and worry, he said, as well as ‘the instinct to try to create order, build armour plating, and never take it off’.

When his own father died he’d thought ‘finally he’s in a place where no one can hurt him, and where he can’t hurt himself’, he said. His father had been idealistic and driven, eventually becoming leader of Harlow council, but ‘as he rose up the ranks his dependence on alcohol deepened’, particularly after the death of his wife. ‘I struggled for a long time with whether I should speak out,’ said Byrne, ‘with the worry that I might be dishonouring my dad. But my dad was the child of an alcoholic too.’

Many of the stories he’d heard since he took the decision to speak out were ‘hard to listen to’, he said, with people describing loneliness, abuse, violence, or ‘special occasions like birthdays and Christmas that were more crisis than celebration’. However, these were stories that people ‘need to hear about’, he stressed. ‘If we can begin to break the silence and end the stigma, then we can help to break the cycle for those children experiencing a hell on earth.’ Children of alcoholics were three times more likely to become alcoholics themselves and three times more likely to attempt suicide, he told the event.

The aim of the APPG, which launched in February, was to ‘make a difference’, he said. ‘Public support is, frankly, a shambles.’ No local authority had a specific strategy in place to support the children of alcoholics, he pointed out, while referral rates for treat­ment varied widely between areas and many treatment budgets were facing cuts. ‘We have to join together and say that this is unacceptable.’

The group was calling for more investment in helplines, as well as public information films aimed at parents to ‘bring the message home of how much damage they’re doing’, he said. ‘We need to have an adult conversation about this.’

The APPG had also published a proposal for a new law, the Children with Alcoholic Parents (Support) Bill, which called for a national strategy as well as the appointment of a minister with national responsibility to support those affected and coordinate services. The law would also require councils and the NHS to set out the scale of the challenge in their local area, and to publish details of their budgets for support and treatment. This would form part of a national league table ‘to show which local authorities are doing good work, and which aren’t’, he said.

‘I had no idea that the support was as shambolic as it is,’ he stated. ‘There’s a lot of people doing good things, and a lot of effective models, but there’s obviously a need to put in place more research, so we can really see what works.’ The APPG was planning an event that would allow those affected by the issues, as well as charities and other organisations, to give evidence about ‘what needs to change’, he said, with the findings forming part of a manifesto to be taken to the party conferences in the autumn.

The biggest challenge, however, remained ‘getting it to the top of the list’, he said. ‘People are only really waking up to the scale of the problem now. We’ve deliberately set our initial campaign asks as something it will be easy for the government to deliver, and that’s why we’re asking for transparency about what’s going on locally. Once you’ve got that comparable data it becomes easy to say, “this needs to change”.’

The way that the conversation around mental health had evolved over the last few years had provided an inspiring example of what could be achieved, he said, but there were clearly major barriers to overcome. ‘When Sally Davies published the new drinking guidelines you had this slightly hysterical reaction in parts of the media, and we really need to get over that.’ It was unlikely that the current government would make ‘big changes’ around alcohol policy, he acknowledged, but smoking campaigns were proof that a strategy framed around the impact on children could have a genuine impact.

‘Every revolution starts with a few people in a room,’ he said. ‘We couldn’t fix things for our parents, but we can fix things for our children. Recovery is a place we can all get to if we choose.’ DDN