Jon Ashworth MP: Help for kids with alcoholic parents could be a New Year's lifeline for those growing up as I did
A new strategy to help kids with alcoholic parents could be a New Year’s lifeline for thousands experiencing what I and so many others have gone through, says Jon Ashworth MP.
Earlier this year I spoke out in Parliament about my own experiences of growing up with an alcoholic father, I have been inundated with messages from people who suffered the same blight on their childhood, and want to help children facing the same fate today.
The truth is it would be easy for me as Shadow Health Secretary to spend my time simply criticising the Government about the state of the NHS – after all there is lots to be critical of. But I wanted to do something more than that. Experts estimate that over 2 million children in Britain are growing up with an alcoholic parent. And yet too often these children have to cope with that in silence, exactly the way I did, with no support or recognition. It's time these children were given the support they deserve and need.
Growing up with an alcoholic parent can not only deprive children of the care and protection needed at home, but often robs them of the childhood they deserved. As I know it can often mean we grew up having to fend for ourselves, and look after those who should have been looking after us.
Spending time with those parents over Christmas was always especially hard, because what were such happy days for all our schoolmates always turned into an ordeal for us. For many children of alcoholics this Christmas any spare money would not have been spent on presents or decorations or a special meal, but – as always – on booze.
So I am glad that the Government has chosen this time of year to announce a commitment to a new strategy to help the children of alcoholics. It could literally be a New Year’s lifeline for thousands of children currently experiencing what I and so many others have gone through before.
It is a victory for the charities who have helped thousands of children over many years cope with a parent with a drink problem, especially NACOA, with whom I have worked closely over the past year and who do amazing work helping some of the most vulnerable children.
It is also a victory for all those other parliamentarians in the All Party Group for Children of Alcoholics, including Liam Byrne and Caroline Flint, who have spoken out so movingly and bravely about their own personal circumstances growing up with an alcoholic parent.
Over the coming weeks and months, we will all watch closely to ensure the Government delivers on this pledge. In particular, after cutting over £40 million from alcohol and drug addiction services last year, we will press them to properly fund the help and support that addicts of all forms need.
And it is a victory for all those people who have been in touch with me since I spoke out about my own experiences, and were willing to share theirs. Their stories broke my heart a thousand times over, and in each of them, I recognised an episode of my own. But what I shared above all with each one of them was that desperate desire to ensure that no child suffering the same fate today is left as bereft of help, support and hope as we were back then.
Having a parent or guardian who drinks too much is one of the most disruptive experiences any child can face. Compared with their peers, children of alcoholics are twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, three times more likely to consider suicide and five times more likely to develop eating disorders.
Worst all of all, children of alcoholics are also four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.
It is breaking this vicious cycle of alcoholism which drives my determination to stand up for our young and innocent victims of drink.
I will of course continue to raise the legitimate concerns of millions of people in our country about the NHS crisis, privatisation of services, nurses' pay, and the desperate funding problems facing our NHS
But this announcement is a small reminder, albeit a hugely important one to those it affects, that when people of goodwill on all sides of politics can come together and recognise that there are groups of deeply vulnerable people who desperately need our help, then we can collectively make a difference.
And if the Government wants to work on a cross party basis to put in place a national strategy to support children of alcoholics then we will engage in that process to ensure a strategy is backed up by meaningful resources and action.
My experience with my dad left me feeling not damaged but determined, and I think it has helped shape who I am today. But others will not have been so lucky. So my message to children growing up or caring for alcoholic parents is this: you're not alone and we’re determined to make a difference for you. If this announcement can be the start of making that happen, we will all feel a great relief.
Jon Ashworth is the Shadow Health Secretary and the Labour MP for Leicester South