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Dr Edna Rich On Fighting Substance Abuse In Families

PhD graduate gets to the bottom of substance abuse in families

Globally, the fight against illicit drug abuse among youth is recognized as one of the greatest struggles, and one that Dr Edna Rich firmly believes begins at the family level - the most powerful setting in any child’s life.

It’s an idea that drove her to earn her a PhD from the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Department of Child and Family Studies at the recent UWC Spring Graduation Ceremony.

Her research on Substance Abuse in the Family stemmed from her passion for strengthening family well-being (a passion that also led her to qualify as an ordained minister in the church of the Nazarene).

She believes that families are the bedrock of our society, and that healthy families are one of the main ways we can build healthier communities. ??

Here’s what Dr Rich has to say about issues that threaten family well-being - such as substance abuse in families...

Who is Dr Edna Rich?

?I am a lecturer in the Child and Family Studies Unit at UWC. I am also a wife, mother of three children between the ages of 16 and 37, and the grandmother of a gorgeous 9-year-old.

After my parents moved from the District Six area, I grew up on the Cape Flats. My family life was loving and stable - but being one of nine children, life at home was financially challenging.  My mother was a home-maker for most of the time, and my father was a full-time church minister who worked among the poor in disadvantaged communities.  

??What is it about your field that excites you most?

?I believe young people are our future, and we need to better understand the reasons and the risk factors that influence their drug use decisions and behaviour.

Drug abuse at an early age has been associated with various problems, including risky sexual behaviours, teenage pregnancies, school drop-out; health and mental problems, gangsterism and crime.

I wanted my research to be crucial to the development of effective prevention strategies.

What does your work mean for South Africa?

My study reveals that there is no one reason why young people take drugs, but rather a myriad of interrelated reasons on various levels that combine to lead up to their drug-taking behaviour.

My findings also indicate that the family system and sub-systems are major determining factors for adolescent substance abuse.

The family is thus a good place to start with primary prevention endeavours.

The results lend support for prevention initiatives that strengthen family functioning, particularly the parent or caregiver–child relationship - initiatives that encourage live-in and non-live-in fathers to be involved in the lives of their children, reduce parental or caregiver substance abuse, and focus on adolescents’ self-esteem and ability to resist peer pressure.

By changing family practices and the ways in which families function, we can change our communities, one family at a time.??

What were some of the reasons you identified for drug-taking behaviour?

My research identified clear associations between drug use by youth and negative family functioning, such as parental/caregivers substance abuse, absent fathers, domestic violence, and compromised parent-child relationships.

Other risk factors included a lack of adult after-school supervision, association with drug-using peers, school drop-out, and easy access to drugs within the neighbourhood or community.??

My study showed that simply educating learners about the dangers of drug abuse, does not, on its own, prevent them from using. So while continuing to educate learners, we need to shift the focus and provide education and parenting skills training that include parenting styles, healthy family functioning, and child development education.

Why focus on the family?

For many years my husband and I worked in a community with a very high incidence of drug addiction and prostitution. It was during this time that I truly realized the extent of the devastating consequences of drug addiction that often resulted in the breakdown of family life, as well as other associated social ills.

?What makes UWC the university for you?

The University’s commitment to develop its own. Not only did UWC open the doors of learning for me through alternative tracks and recognition of prior learning, but it also provided me with an opportunity to transfer my knowledge and skills to the next generation.

I enjoy my work: I get to teach and do research on topics that not only interest me, but are dear to my heart. It doesn’t get better than that.

What do you do to relax?

As a child my father instilled in us a love of reading, writing, and learning, and I still read everything and anything I can lay my hands on.

And because academic life can be very demanding, whenever I get an opportunity I like to retreat to nature to relax. Taking a walk in a natural setting, hearing the sounds of birds or running water, is soothing to my soul.

Other than that, besides my community work, there is nothing I love more than spending time with my extended family and friends.

??Do you have any folks that you admire or would like to acknowledge for their support?

I am grateful to my husband and family for the sacrifices they made for me to complete my thesis. And I appreciate my supervisors, Prof Holtman and Dr Londt, for their academic and emotional support. But my real role models are the gogos - the grannies and caregivers - the unsung heroes in homes and communities who stand in the gap and raise the children when parents are either unwilling or unable to do so. ??

?What was your PhD journey like?

My PhD journey was not all smooth sailing - it was filled with ups and downs, including some debilitating health problems along the way. There were times I felt like throwing in the towel.

The thing that kept me going was that I firmly believed in my work. I also felt that I had an obligation towards all the participants in the study who had to dig deep to share their deepest feelings and most private family situations with me.

Another motivation for me was to set an example and serve as an inspiration to my own children to persevere in their goals.  My hope was that I may leave them a legacy of commitment to lifelong learning and development.

?If you could share one message with the wider public, what would it be?

Let us nurture our children and keep that parent-child connections and bonds strong and lasting. As working parents, it is not always easy - but it’s so worth the investment.?