I happened to catch Prime Time on RTE last Thursday and a report by Richard Crowley on the increasing heroin problem in rural Ireland. Rural Ireland, it turned out, was anywhere outside of Dublin. The main focus of the report was Kilkenny where heroin users, their families and social workers were interviewed although according to the programme it could have been made anywhere in the south east as the problem is in all counties. The mother of one user said: “Heroin is as easy to get as a packet of fags in Kilkenny and if anyone says different, they’re lying”.

It was a deeply disturbing piece on many levels. There is the obvious sadness of anyone who finds themselves in the hellish world of heroin addiction. As was stated on the programme, Fatima Mansions in Dublin lost an entire generation to this evil. The vile nature of heroin always suggests that you can just try its delights, enjoy them for what they are and then walk away. That is of course the problem. Heroin isn’t like that. It is also not an instantly addicting drug, but lures the user into believing they can be that recreational, weekend warrior type. Thousands have fallen for the trap and although many do escape with their lives, they are poorer lives afterwards, physically and psychologically. It also has to be said that many die.

However I think what I found most upsetting was that the users and their families hid their identities on camera. With concealed faces, soft recognisably Irish parents’ voices spoke of heroin, jail, shooting up and horrors that seemed incongruous with their nice country accents. I totally understand why they choose to remain anonymous, but it still says loudly that they are ashamed or afraid to be known. Are we still that judgmental? What about compassion and the fact that we all have something to hide? Are we still holding onto that awful, ‘what would the neighbours think’ mentality? I couldn’t help but feel that if the children of these parents had cancer or some other terminal illness they would have happily appeared in full light. Should we only care if the illness is not self-inflicted? I have no wish to sound like a bleeding heart but once something like heroin gets its claws into your child (no matter what age) you too go through hell and need help.

One of the users interviewed by Richard Crowley gave her name as Michelle. She was a 36 year old mother of three who was in recovery and on a methadone programme. She spoke frankly of her own situation: “You want to stop doing it but you can’t. I know the road leads to jails, institutions or death. I did the jails, I did the institutions; death was the next thing on the line for me.” By all accounts Michelle got the help she needed in time. It struck me, though, that her story would be helpful to parents and children everywhere. She was someone who started out as a recreational weekend user and like most others, descended into the pit of addiction. But can we, as a society allow Michelle to go public and go into our schools without thinking there is something wrong with her or believing that all ‘junkies’ are just a waste of time and not worth the trouble that they have brought on themselves.

Another father on the programme talked about the fact that he didn’t know what to do when he found out his son was taking heroin. I’m sure we can all identify with that. What do you do? His first thought was to go to the Gardai. Naturally it is an illegal substance in this country and his son was jailed. This man also believed that the sharp shock of prison might set the lad straight. But with heroin addiction you rarely shock the user into stopping. Parents need educating and it would be great if that education came from other parents with first hand experience. We need to shed some light on this and quickly. Heroin is about one person making a stupid choice that now affects their health, their career, their future, their immediate family, their extended family, the community they live in and ultimately threatens the entire fabric of society.

The other difficulty with a place like Waterford or the smaller towns in the South East is that generally, for most of us, we don’t ‘see’ a huge drug culture. It is not visible, it is a sub culture, but we may see the results of it; should heroin use escalate, have no doubt that crime will also. I remember being quite shocked several years ago when someone I know said that they had stopped being a taxi driver in Dungarvan when the nicest customers they had were the drug dealers! Now I could be accused of slandering Dungarvan but it’s everywhere and while we’re denying it we can never combat it. As Tony Geoghegan, Director of Merchants Quay Ireland said on Primetime: “Our general approach to drugs actually mirrors the process of addiction”. Stage one is denial that the problem exists and stage two is that by the time we are ready to admit that the problem exists it has got in and it’s already too late.

We seem to romance the notion constantly that heroin abusers are single when the reality is that many have dependents. We also need proper services urgently, recession or no recession. And not services in Dublin, but services locally, with a great big sign outside that encourages us all to discuss this issue like adults rather than trying to sweep it under the carpet. If heroin is allowed get a grip as it did in inner city Dublin and parts of London in the past, there will be no sweeping it anywhere. Indeed we’ll find ourselves literally stepping over it and it’s not a pretty sight. It will be of little use then saying that we didn’t see it coming.