Amy Winehouse charity gives school talks about addiction and empathy

Amy Winehouse

Dominic Ruffy tells pupils about his first day at school: “I remember standing in the playground and a group of kids were talking about their summer holidays. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m so boring.’ I’d just spent three weeks in California and I went over to talk to these kids, trying to make friends, and out of my mouth came, ‘When I was in America I saw Ghostbusters’.”

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There was only one problem. It was a blatant lie. “So I made up this 45-minute story about what I hoped and prayed Ghostbusters was going to be about and, of course, I looked a proper idiot when it came out in Britain three months later.”

It seems an innocuous enough tale, but Ruffy now believes it should have been a warning sign.

“I didn’t know that that was an early expression of me not feeling comfortable in my own skin, of not feeling I had enough self-esteem just to be me. Therefore, when we were at parties and I was 13 and a cool bunch of kids were passing joints around, then, of course, I’m going to take it because I’m doing everything I can to fit in.

“I didn’t know I was going to be one of those kids who would fall in love with those substances and would immediately start selling from home to fund it. Self-esteem is the underlying issue. It affects everything. Once you get kids talking about how they feel about themselves, about their friends, that’s the key.”

At 30 Ruffy was a heroin addict. But today he is clean and the resilience programme director of the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a charity set up to help prevent drug and alcohol misuse among young people.

The groundbreaking programme, which sees former addicts visit schools to share their experiences, was born from the painful experiences of Winehouse’s parents, Mitch and Janis, when they were touring rehab clinics trying to find the right help for their daughter.

“The consistent message they got from people in rehab was that they’d never had any constructive education in school about drugs and alcohol,” Ruffy said. “They’d had policemen in. They’d been told, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that’, but nobody had ever gone in and talked to them about their feelings and emotions like we do.”

The programme, formed in partnership with specialist addiction charity Addaction, aims to reach 250,000 pupils within five years. A year into the programme, 87 volunteers have been trained and a further 60 are in training. All the volunteers have overcome significant personal issues, which Ruffy explains is the key to connecting with young people.

“I tell that story [about Ghostbusters]and you can hear a pin drop. We’ve had the known school bully break down and say, ‘I did not know that me ripping the mickey out of the ginger kid in the corner might lead to him using drugs when he was older.’ If we can help these kids overcome their emotional wellbeing issues, they’re less likely to do drugs when they’re older. Empathy is the big thing. It’s getting honest with the kids and allowing them to get honest with us.”

The programme – now operating in 11 regions in the UK – appears to be urgently needed. Government figures released last week show the number of pupils excluded from secondary school for drug and alcohol issues is rising. Meanwhile, the latest Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use survey shows that just over half of pupils believe they are not given enough information about drug use.

Some experts believe that encouraging children to talk about drink and drugs at school glamorises addiction. But Ruffy says: “We’re very specific. We don’t go in there and talk about violence in crack houses or getting high on the street.”

Others question whether the programme, which is supported by a £4.3m grant from the Big Lottery fund, is worth the money.

However, an interim report conducted by an independent team of experts from Harvard University and the University of Bath, shared with the Observer, has found that more than 70% of pupils who were questioned about their experience of the programme believed they were better equipped to manage self-esteem, cope with peer pressure and avoid risky behaviours associated with substance use.

A similar proportion said they had greater confidence to make safer decisions about alcohol or drug use. It is the first time an independent study has tried to evaluate the impact of a drug and alcohol awareness programme in schools and the foundation hopes the results will attract more funding from government and the private sector. If so, then Amy Winehouse’s parents hope some good will come from their daughter’s death.“The resilience programme is the legacy that Amy will leave,” Ruffy said. “It is a place where young people feel safe, where they can open up and talk about how they feel.”

Powered by article was written by Jamie Doward, for The Observer on Saturday 1st August 2015 22.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010