Toby Williams was the Conservative candidate for Mitcham and Morden at the last General Election. He is standing for the London Assembly next year as a city-wide candidate.
As difficult, painful and tragic as the Coronavirus pandemic has been, it has also brought out the very best in human nature. It has been extraordinary to see people go to great lengths to help loved ones and absolute strangers alike, with communities pulling together, individuals volunteering their precious time to help others and our heroic key workers putting themselves in harms way to keep the country going.
In many ways, we are coming out of the pandemic as even more of a compassionate, big-hearted, and socially conscious country. This puts us in the right position to deal with some of the pressing social problems facing our country – especially those which have been made more acute by the lockdown.
In particular, I hope that we, as a society, are able to turn some of our attention to the plight of the children of alcoholics (COA).
I have been a COA for the vast majority of my life and, despite now living 150 miles away from home, Coronavirus has made an already difficult situation even more challenging. But I shudder to think of fellow COAs who have had to go through the experience of lockdown while still living with their addicted parent. I have no doubt that my experience pales into insignificance compared to theirs.
So many of these children (and most of them will be children) will have been caught up in a perfect storm. As I have seen from the last few months, lockdown has tragically created the circumstances which has allowed alcoholism to thrive. For so many of us, the pandemic has created more space in our lives, and alcoholics tend to fill any vacant space with more alcohol.
Whilst alcohol consumption may have increased, a child’s ability to take some respite from their parent will have all but disappeared, with schools closed and friends out of reach. This will have resulted in a far more intense experience of being a COA, leading to a crippling lack of security at best and abuse at worst.
It’s no surprise whatsoever that the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) – a brilliant charity which runs a helpline for COAs – reported a doubling of calls in the first two weeks of lockdown alone. The COAs who contacted Nacoa were distressed by the lack of routine and alarmed by the intensity of lockdown. COAs described lockdown as “unbearable” and “unmanageable” due to a combination of parents drinking increasing amounts and the usual escape mechanisms simply not being available.
My concern is that all of this represents a shift rather than a spike. Alcoholism is all too often a one-way street, with alcoholics unable to shift into reverse gear and un-do the damage. That is why now is precisely the right time to look at what more we can do protect and support COAs.
This isn’t just important to mitigate the pain caused in the short term, it’s also key to preventing serious problems in the long term. Figures from 2017 show that, compared to other children, COAs are twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, three times more likely to consider suicide, five times more likely to develop eating disorders and four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. By dealing with the difficulties faced by COAs, we can boost social justice, improve our education system, and help to prevent health problems which would otherwise cost the NHS millions.
As Conservatives, we can be immensely proud of our record in government when it comes to COAs. It was, after all, a Conservative government which, in 2018, launched the UK’s first ever strategy to help children affected by parental alcohol misuse, which included £6 million worth of funding to help children with alcoholic parents get support and advice. Importantly, half a million pounds was invested in Nacoa’s helpline – a genuine lifeline and often last resort for so many COAs.
But it’s time to build on this fantastic work, with a key focus on three areas as a “starter for 10”:
1) Boosting awareness for children
Something which is overlooked is that children so often do not understand what alcohol is, let alone alcoholism; my eight-year-old self certainly didn’t. This creates an obvious dilemma: how can COAs ask for help with a problem that they don’t understand or even know exists? It’s time for a review of how the issue of parental alcoholism is approached in schools, and whether this could be done more effectively.
2) Boosting awareness for adults who work with children
It remains the case that the way in which the state deals with alcoholics is very focussed on the alcoholics themselves. For example, doctors rightly focus on getting an alcoholic help, but too little attention is paid to the needs to any children involved.
Teachers are encouraged to spot the signs of all kinds of child abuse, but there is a lack of awareness of the support available to COAs. It would be enormously beneficial to provide new guidance and training to these professionals to enable them to have COAs in the forefront of their minds and know where to turn to get these children support.
3) Getting the funding right
Spending is only part of the answer to big social problems like addiction, but now is a sensible time to review what the Government is spending on helping COAs. As touched on above, in 2018 £6 million was invested in supporting COAs, but this money is set to run out next year.
As we deal with the myriad of challenges inevitably caused by a pandemic, it is essential that the often silent voices of COAs are not allowed to simply fade into the background. With thousands of COAs having just gone through an incredibly difficult period, now is the right time to build on the proud Conservative track record of delivering the support that they need and deserve.
In doing so, we will help to ease the pain of the present and avoid the problems of the future. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.