22 March 2001 Edition

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It's like playing Russian Roulette


Eleven-year-old Barry Kelly gave his mother a hug and apologised for ``giving her cheek'' after he'd been asked to fetch the family's newspapers one Sunday morning. ``Sorry mum,'' he'd said as he handed over papers. ``He was gone before I realised he'd taken my change,'' says Susie, ``but that was Barry, a typical boy.'' An hour later Barry was dead.

Liz Lennon and her 15-year-old daughter, Lisa O'Neill, had been discussing the future the night before. ``I'm a hairdresser and Lisa was thinking of hairdressing as a trade,'' says Liz. ``She was due to leave school that summer and we were making plans.'' The first two shops Lisa went into refused to sell her an aerosol air freshener. In the third shop, Lisa bought two toilet rolls as well as an aerosol and nobody thought anything of it. This purchase cost her her life.

It was a spur of the moment thing with 15-year-old Michael Young. He was returning home from the local shops when he stopped to speak to three other teenagers. ``I'd sent him to buy a jar of coffee,'' says his mother Jean. ``He'd forgotten it once and I sent him back for it.'' Michael was just a few yards away from home when he was offered an aerosol. ``Have a go,'' one of the other teenagers had said. It was his first and last time.

In the back kitchen of the Twinbrook home of Jean Young, three mothers meet to discuss a campaign against solvent abuse. Each has lost a child and all of them are determined to turn their personal tragedy into a force for good. Two weeks ago, Jean and her family launched the Michael Young campaign. Liz and Susie contacted Jean after reading about the campaign in a local newspaper.

``There has been a noticeable upsurge in young people engaging in solvent abuse in West Belfast in recent months,'' says Gerry McConville of the Drugs Awareness Project. ``But the agencies are more focused upon drug rather then solvent abuse.''

``When Barry died I didn't know what to do,'' says Susie. ``His death has affected my whole family. His father is heartbroken and his sister has never recovered from the loss.''

``When we saw Jean's interview in the papers it was like a light going on,'' says Liz. ``Here's something we can do and hopefully stop some other family from going through the grief we've all suffered.''

``There's a stigma attached to solvent abuse,'' says Jean. ``No one talks about it. It's a hidden killer. There's nothing cool or glamorous about sniffing. Children from poor areas, working class kids, are endangering their lives and nothing is being said.''

``I don't think the children using solvents even realise how dangerous it is,'' says Michael Young's sister Jane. ``It's like playing Russian Roulette; sooner or later it's going to kill.''

Solvent abuse usually means getting `high' by breathing in the fumes from aerosols, glues or other products, many found around most people's homes or available from shops. Statistics suggest that the practice peaked in the early 1990s but if you think it's `gone out of fashion', think again. Barry Kelly, Lisa O'Neill and Michael Young died within weeks of each other and they all lived in the relatively small community of West Belfast.

Local community workers have noticed an upsurge of solvent abuse in the West Belfast area. There is certainly a more visible presence of young people engaging in solvent abuse on the streets. It is estimated that around one in ten secondary school children will try `sniffing' but what most young people and their parents don't realise how dangerous ``having a go'' just once can be.

Michael Young had no history of solvent abuse. His first inhalation was his last. Twenty minutes after speaking to her son for the last time, there was a knock at the door and Jean was told that Michael was lying unconscious just a few yards away. He never recovered and died a short time later.

Barry Kelly was painting graffiti on a wall with two other children using paint they had stolen from the store of a nearby factory. Barry had tried `sniffing' solvents once before but he'd told his mother ``it made me sick'' and promised ``never to do it again.'' In fact, no one's sure if he broke that promise.

When Barry returned to the factory for more paint he found another, unopened tin. Other children engaging in solvent abuse in a nearby field told Barry to leave the tin alone because it was part of their ``stash''. The tin didn't contain paint but a highly toxic chemical used for cleaning metal. Barry died instantly.

Another parent had told Liz that she thought Lisa and her friend had been ``sniffing'' nail polish in one of their bedrooms but no one thought either of them would do it again. Liz is determined that no other mother will make that mistake.

``We're going to put photographs of our children onto the campaign posters,'' says Liz, ``I think photographs will bring the message home to people. We are saying, these are three young people from this area and they all died, tragically and unnecessarily. Don't make the same mistake.''

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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