Knowledge is key to breaking bad
SCHOOL captain, a netball and tennis star, outstanding academic and Young Citizen of the Year. Brydie Lawford could have been anything she wanted.
But the former Rochester Secondary College student, who had the world at her feet, instead chose to devote her time helping those in it who needed it most. She knows knowledge is power. It’s why she has worked so hard to help others, particularly those with drug and alcohol problems. Today that’s the purpose of the 30-yearold’s job as assistant manager at Melbourne’s Youth Support and Advocacy Service for people between 12-21 dealing with those issues.
She wants her former hometown to know there’s a reason why people turn to these substances and that there are plenty of ways to help them — none of which include isolation and judgement.
After graduating in 2004, Brydie moved to the ‘big city’.
‘‘I know it sounds corny, but it was always a dream of mine to help people who were experiencing hardship or disadvantage,’’ she said.
‘‘I can talk the leg off a chair, so a Bachelor of Social Science seemed like the obvious choice.
‘‘I majored in youth work and counselling and quickly realised my passion was to work with young people.’’
For years Brydie was a case worker for homeless youth, helping women in crisis, many of whom were fleeing domestic violence.
‘‘I was quick to learn homelessness does not happen in isolation – the young people I was working with were experiencing complex issues such as poor mental and physical health, economic hardship, legal issues, family breakdown, isolation, past and ongoing sexual and physical violence and the ongoing effects of trauma,’’ she said.
‘‘An overwhelming number of young people had disclosed a long history of trauma.’’
While she worked with the Oasis Youth Support Network in Sydney, Brydie helped young people, people her own age, dealing with abandonment and neglect, sexual and physical abuse or who were the collateral damage of family violence.
‘‘Many of these young people had missed out on a safe and nurturing environment as a child, and thus went without positive role models and support,’’ she said.
‘‘They used drugs and alcohol to cope.’’
The most enriching experience of her life, she said, was a six-week placement in East Arnhem Land, right at the top of the Northern Territory.
‘‘A dear friend of mine (Matthew Badura from Echuca) and I were running a youth, sport and recreation program for the Yolngu kids on an island called Milingimbi, which is a remote Aboriginal community,’’ she said.
‘‘We’d run footy and basketball, fishing in croc infested waters, girls trips into the bush where we'd swim in the billabong, art and of course, a disco, as a way to combat boredom and provide a safe space for young people to hang out.
‘‘It was a beautiful experience, but it was also extremely isolating and heart-wrenching.
‘‘The poverty is unbelievable, the inequality still to this day, makes me feel sick in my stomach. But still, somehow, amongst it all there is something refreshing about the slow, simple way in which Yolngu life flows.
‘‘There is resilience in that community. But, most importantly, during this experience I learnt the devastating impact of intergeneration-trauma on a community.’’
In the 2013 Victorian census of ‘young people and alcohol and other drugs’ found even prior to beginning substance use, young people had experienced considerable disadvantage that almost certainly contributed to their later drug use.
More than two thirds of census participants had a history of childhood abuse and/or neglect, almost 40 per cent had been involved in the state care and protection system, few had completed secondary education, and most had experienced mental health issues.
‘‘Being in environments where substance abuse is normalised also greatly increases the likelihood of a young person developing a substance abuse problem,’’ Brydie said.
‘‘This complex trauma, left without support or care, is extremely detrimental to a person’s wellbeing.
‘‘Most young people who present to drug and alcohol services explain that they use drugs ‘to stop feeling’ or ‘to stop thinking’ – a pain-relieving emotional anaesthetic.
‘‘Often drugs are the only form of pain relief they can access.
‘‘Drug and alcohol use always has a purpose or a function, and it important to look at what the function is of a drug use in someone’s life, in order to understand how to best provide help or support to that person.’’
Now, Brydie does that daily at her residential withdrawal unit in Fitzroy, Melbourne. YSAS exists to directly support and provide advocacy for these young people.
It’s there Brydie focuses on the function of a drug (alleviating boredom, social bonding, escaping reality) and helps replace that with ‘protective factors’.
‘‘A protective factor for lots of young people is simply someone in their life who believes in them, and sees past their behaviour and supports them through their tough time/s,’’ Brydie said.
‘‘Supporting a young person to identify their own coping strategies and reflecting on how these strategies have worked in the past and now, can help a young person plan for their future.
‘‘It’s a really cool, therapeutic and relaxing space to engage in drug education, goal setting and individualised care plans, healthy eating, sleep hygiene, health and fitness and intensive support with any psychosocial issues.’’
She said the aim was for people to have ‘‘as much knowledge as possible’’ so they can make informed choices in their lives.
‘‘We also want communities to know about drug use, so that we can break down the social stigma and provide support for those people when they need it the most,’’ she said.
‘‘I say let’s talk to young people about drugs and alcohol. It’s best for young people to feel like they can ask questions, and, most importantly, ask for help. An open dialogue about drugs is essential.’’
She said it was vital to help youth reframe substance use as a way to cope at a time of trauma and distress, and instead encourage them to develop new strategies like going for a walk or calling a friend.
‘‘It’s important to link young people with appropriate professional support. Whether it’s the local school counsellor, doctor or a drug and alcohol service in a town nearby,’’ she said.
‘‘Support to the young person and to the family and friends is paramount.
Brydie hopes sharing her story will help enlighten the community. She said it’s important to work together, share information and offer support.
‘‘Because at the end of the day, these young people need not only the support of an amazing service such as YSAS, they need us, as mums, dads, sisters, aunties, friends, neighbours and coaches, to stand up and be there and hold hope and light for them so they see ahead and walk in the direction they choose,’’ she said.
‘‘Young people are smart, strong and resilient, and its heart breaking to think young people feel like drugs and alcohol are the best or only way of managing those overwhelming emotions and feelings,’’ she said.
‘‘But what truly breaks my heart, it to think that they have to do it alone.’’