Amy Winehouse charity gives school talks about addiction and empathy

Foundation set up in singer’s memory visits hopes to counter abuse of drugs and alcohol in young people

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The parents of Amy Winehouse set up the foundation.

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’.”

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.”

Amy Winehouse – A Lost Little Girl, Who Could Have Been Saved

 

Reposted from Huff Post

I saw Amy Winehouse three or four times in person at the London Clinic in December of 2009. I was there regularly, visiting my terminally ill father. Even in that environment, she was vibrant yet restless, surrounded by bodyguards, but somehow alone. My Dad commented on how sad it was that she was there from her addictions when she had everything going for her. He was right – if only she had known it herself.

The media after her death in July 2011, focused on her alcohol and drug abuse. But they didn’t mention her bulimia, nor the depression she wrestled with since she was a teen. The new documentary film on her life directed by Asif Kapadia sets the record straight, telling the tale of a brilliant woman who was plagued with self-doubt and deficient in resilience.

She was a happy child, but a troubled teen, finding her ‘perfect’ diet early on – eating a lot and then throwing up afterwards. In some old video footage she talked about being an ugly mug, because she looked different from others. But therein lied her beauty, a striking, unique charm that made her Amy.

Three quarters of young girls today don’t like how they look and five out of six are worried about getting fat. Amy was one of those girls, one that society didn’t save. If these confidence issues aren’t addressed they seep into later life. Amy’s bad relationships all stemmed from a belief she didn’t deserve love. Her eating disorders and substance abuse weren’t part of a ‘rock and roll” lifestyle, but because she couldn’t cope with the reality of who she was.

Confidence comes from loving what you do, not from external stuff such as image and fame. Amy loved her music but she was plunged into a world of live events, paparazzi and TV appearances, which was her worst nightmare. All she wanted to do was expel her pain by converting it into lyrics and music.

At the Amy premiere at Cannes Film Festival, we were able to honour her life, remembering that she was a ‎woman of great achievement who struggled with many demons. Every single person in the cinema was moved to tears by her incredible story. Contrary to popular belief, she wasn’t party mad or overly hedonistic. She was a girl in trouble that needed help and somewhere along the lines society failed her. Had she been supported during those vulnerable teenage years when she found fame, she could have coped better with life. Excelling at sport, music, or in your studies is not a guarantee of feeling good on the inside. The pressure to be perfect today is immense and it can be an addiction in itself.

At the end of the film Amy’s bodyguard reveals that she regretted her stardom. She would have given anything to take it all back, to be able to walk down the street in peace. She is now known around the world for the very songs that made her ill, Back to Black about her toxic ex boyfriend and Rehab about well, the obvious. She just wanted to move on and compose some new work away from the media eye but the money machine kept whirring. Her father even brought a film crew with him when he visited her on retreat in St Lucia. Each time she reached a new milestone, the Brits, Grammys, singing with Tony Bennett, she would immediately relapse. For when you don’t think you’re good enough these goals are impossibly unattainable and at the same time they are addictive because they are the only proof of self-worth.

Let’s make Amy’s early departure a learning for us all to protect our children and those we love in trouble. For many, many people suffer from mental health problems that have been swept under the carpet for too long. Amy wasn’t crazy, nor was she a wildchild. She was an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent, and she just needed the tools to assist her – if the appropriate coping mechanisms had been imparted along the way, from childhood, through to her years in the spotlight, things could have been very different.

Amy Winehouse shone very brightly and she still does. She is a reminder to all of us to take care of those we love and build, not crush, their confidence. Self-harming, eating disorders and suicide are all on the rise and we need to curb this heart-breaking trend. Her loss is deeply tragic but she has left an incredible legacy and not just her music. She has pathed the way for our youngsters, to stand in their truth and truly believe in themselves.