Aaron Fox's story a stark reminder of the duty of care we owe to those battling drug addiction
Prevention and early intervention hold the key in the fight against the drug epidemic that claims 100 lives here every year, says Nichola Mallon
The well-documented prevalence and escalation of drugs misuse through both the consumption of illegal drugs and prescribed medicines is having a devastating impact on individuals, families and our community.
Over the past six years, as a councillor in north Belfast, and even in the few short weeks since becoming an MLA, I have witnessed the torment of those who fall victim to drug addiction and the anguish of the parents and families struggling to free them from its debilitating grip.
We know that drugs misuse brings with it an immense financial cost to our health service, our economy and our justice system. The human cost, however - the years of a life spent battling a drug addiction and the mental vulnerability that accompanies such an addiction, the many families left broken by their battle with addiction and all the loved ones lost as a result of drugs - can ever be truly captured.
However, it is possible to get a sharp insight into the human cost when you spend time listening to individuals and families who have come through this journey and, perhaps most acutely, when you listen to those who have lost loved ones caught up in this growing epidemic.
Though individual circumstances vary, what unifies these individuals and families is their response when asked what more can be done? Almost always the answer is the same: make more help available and make it accessible earlier. Break the cycle before the addiction takes its full grip.
This week, my first act in the Assembly was to table an amendment on behalf of the SDLP to highlight addicts' and families' plea.
I have a profound appreciation for the life-changing, life-saving work carried out by those working in addiction and mental health services in the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. They must be praised for their dedication in helping some of the most vulnerable in our society and, most importantly, they must be supported to expand their collaborative work on prevention and intensive early intervention. That is what we are calling for.
All the evidence shows that prevention and early support in the community works. It's about the right medication and the right support at the right time. This is critical if we are to prevent the cycle of physical and mental harm - and harmful behaviour - that can follow drug addiction.
The increase in recent years in the number of drugs seizures and convictions, and the recent strengthening of the law in respect of the supply of so-called legal highs, is welcome.
However, much more needs to be done between the community, the PSNI and the courts if we are to seriously tackle the proliferation of drugs on our streets.
The truth, though, is that this problem cannot be tackled by targeting supply alone. To be effective, the job cannot be left to one minister, or the police. Collaboration between the Justice Minister, and the Ministers for Education and Health, in particular, is critical.
They will be instrumental in reducing demand through educating our young people against the dangers of drugs. They will be essential to increasing access to, and awareness of, prevention and early intervention support services, when the symptoms of drug abuse are first spotted and when we have the best chance of breaking the harmful downward spiral ending in addiction.
The latest statistics tell us there are more than 100 drug-related deaths each year in Northern Ireland. We cannot, and must not, lose sight of the human story behind these statistics.
Powerful stories such as that of 16-year-old Aaron Fox, who bravely and successfully battled his addiction but sadly lost his life a few months ago to the consequent mental demons that proved too much to bear.
Aaron's story was relayed to me by his devoted mother and father. Aaron was a budding chef and talented artist. Through his art he wanted to show the true picture, the real torment that, in this instance, legal highs unleash on a young person and their loved ones.
He was selflessly determined to use his artistic gifts in his recovery to share his very personal experiences with other young people and prevent them going through what he had.
Since his passing, and even through their pain and grief, Aaron's parents are determined to carry on his message, warning other young people and campaigning to ensure that help is available as early as possible, so no other young person becomes trapped by their addiction and the mental anguish that ensues.
With the consent of Aaron's parents, I passed on his message in the Assembly and their call for more help at an earlier stage - a call that is echoed in so many homes and by so many people who have lived, and are living, this nightmare.
I was pleased to see this call for greater investment in, access to and awareness of prevention and early intervention services supported by every party in the Assembly, because warm words of comfort and sympathy are not enough. There is a duty on us all to listen to these families - and to act.
Nichola Mallon is SDLP MLA for North Belfast and the party's communities spokesperson