Stoned, drunk and under 13
Hundreds of young children are arriving at Waikato hospitals having abused substances, with some as young as 12 being treated for full-blown addictions.
Documents obtained under the Official Information Act paint a worrying picture which experts say is getting worse.
The documents show 1000 children with an indication of having used drugs or alcohol were discharged from Waikato's hospitals in the last five years – with one death occurring this year. Details around that death were not provided.
Last year 233 admitted children showed indication of alcohol/drug use – and with 145 admitted by the middle of May, this year is predicted to exceed that.
While many were preventable cases in which life-threatening amounts of illegal drugs and alcohol were taken by - or given to - young children and teenagers, others were cases of accidental poisoning from medicine or household products or accidental overdoses of prescription medicines.
Of most concern were the number of children being enrolled with the DHB's addictions services.
In the past 18 months, 72 children had been treated by the service – the youngest just 12.
Waikato DHB Mental Health and Addictions director of clinical services Dr Rees Tapsell said these figures showed a fraction of the increase in children's substance addiction.
His team dealt with only high-end addictions where children were usually dealing with other mental health issues.
Many more were being treated in the community by non-government organisations, he said.
"It's a concern for everybody," he said.
"There's very young kids in households where alcohol and drugs are rife and as you will see our services are seeing them and, as best as they can, treating them."
However, Dr Tapsell said real change would only come if the families got involved and addressed wider issues around why the child turned to alcohol and drugs.
He said the younger the child, the easier it was to get them back on track.
But unless drugs and alcohol were made less accessible, the situation wouldn't improve.
"There is absolutely no doubt that the availability of alcohol and other substances is a really, really important factor in where kids will end up.
"The less available we make alcohol, legal substances and illegal substances, the more likely it is we'll reduce the number of kids that need intervention."
Waikato Alcohol and Drug Community Support Trust director Stephen King said there was a "huge increase" in kids turning to drugs and "it's getting younger all the time".
"But their misuse of alcohol and or other substance is just a sign of deeper problems and until we stop focusing on treating the symptoms and start dealing with the root cause, it won't get any better.
"Well-balanced children don't tend, in my experience, to have a need to enhance life by using alcohol and drugs."
Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee chairman, paediatrician Dr Nick Baker, said the solution lay at a young age and as far back as the previous generation "when they were nine".
"We have to get people prepared to be good parents and becoming parents when they want to become parents."
He said children who turned to drugs most often had grown up exposed to adverse experiences at a early age.
"They may not have had the love and affection that makes people happy and gives them a buzz."