Sad reality of substance abuse

The human cost of substance abuse was bravely and heartbreakingly recounted in this newspaper this week.

The Auckland-based parents of 27-year-old Josh Tunnicliffe, whose body was found recently in the Dunedin Botanic Garden with gas canisters nearby and whose death has been referred to the coroner, described their decade-long attempt to stop his huffing addiction.

Despite their tireless support of the "loved young man from a good home", the way in which he died is proof that substance abuse and addiction do not discriminate and can have tragic consequences: "He died with so little, and on his own. He had no backpack, no wallet, no socks, no underpants, no toothpaste, no soap, and a 50c piece in his pocket," Mrs Lee said.

No-one can have been unaffected by the Lees' harrowing account of their son's transformation from a sport-loving, globe-trotting teenager with an "extraordinary life" full of opportunities to a psychologically addicted user of inhalants who wanted to stop the practice, was terrified of the hallucinations he experienced when he was high, had failed to hold on to work as a barista, and was sleeping rough far from his home at the time of his death.

The Lees had tried every professional avenue to help him beat his addiction, including using anti-addiction services, community alcohol and drug counselling, doctor visits for psychiatric referrals, Salvation Army services and even approaching retailers in Auckland directly begging them not to sell to Josh products that could be used as inhalants.

However, the couple were critical about support available, saying they often had to wait weeks for appointments and the support tended to focus on the family, not Josh's addiction, and in the end they could not help him: "If I could have bricked him up in a house in the back of a garden and pushed food through a slot for him, I would have, but you can't do that," Mr Lees said. "God help those people who do not have advocates."

There is no doubting the Lees' dedication to their son and no doubting their struggles will be sadly echoed by parents throughout the country, struggling with the lures and effects of alcohol, drugs, legal highs and other mind-altering substances on their children.

But the issue is not clear cut and involves many people at many levels. Addiction is complex as health professionals working in the area will testify, and there is likely to be much debate in the health and social support sector - as in any case - about what could have been done differently. The political debate about the use of and availability of alcohol, drugs, party pills and butane-based products - and accessibility and retailer obligation - is also ongoing.

In September, some of the country's prominent retail chains voluntarily restricted the sale of butane-based products to minors following a spate of youth deaths and injuries from huffing, including to two Mosgiel teenagers who were badly burned by exploding lpg bottles.

And of course, after such cases, parental responsibility and individual responsibility are always discussed as well.

But sadly, in this case, even with all the parental support in the world, the lure of huffing has proven too powerful. Mrs Lee said her son's huffing addiction had taken a tremendous toll on the family. And it has sadly taken the ultimate toll on a young life.

It is a tragedy for the family, friends and acquaintances - and health professionals and support services staff. For death never occurs in isolation, and its ramifications will be felt far afield and for a long time.

The Lees should be commended for doing everything they could for their son. Their actions no doubt did save his life for a long time. They cared for him and showed it. And he must have known that. But it is likely, despite that, they may still feel they did not do enough.

And that too is a further tragedy - for given their story, it appears nothing could be further from the truth.