Mitch Winehouse: Drug addiction is as indiscriminate as cancer
Nine years after pop singer Amy Winehouse's death, Mitch and Jane Winehouse talk to Liz Connor about their work tackling addiction in young people
“MY RESPONSE to some of Amy's ‘situations' was that I would pretend to have a heart attack and go into hospital, thinking that would shock her into going straight.
“At the end of the day though, that stuff doesn't work. Amy stopped taking drugs when she wanted to stop taking drugs…”
Mitch Winehouse, father of the late singer Amy Winehouse, is reflecting on some of his attempts to intervene when his daughter was struggling with addiction.
As one of the most discussed singer-songwriters of her generation, Amy's lasting legacy is a tale of two halves. Although remembered as a great singing talent, during her short life, she became just as famous for her battles with drugs and alcohol, as she was for her iconic voice. In 2011, aged 27, she died of alcohol poisoning.
In the wake of her death, Amy's family set up the Amy Winehouse Foundation (amywinehousefoundation.org), a charity that helps to support other young people struggling with addiction.
“We created the foundation literally the day Amy passed away,” recalls Mitch (69). “I was in America and I said to the family, ‘We can either jump in a hole, or we can do something positive'.”
Among other things to date, the charity has addressed around 300,000 kids in schools as part of its Resilience Programme, and also runs Amy's Place, a residential recovery house for young women.
“We provide counselling support, and in some cases, we fund residential rehab,” says Jane, Amy's step-mother and a co-founder of the charity. “It's virtually impossible to get funded for residential rehab in this country. It's an area that's on the decline as the drug treatment budgets are decreasing, so we're trying filling the gaps where we can.”
Recently, the foundation partnered with Better Noise films to support the launch of Sno Babies (snobabiesmovie.com), which aims to reduce the stigma around substance abuse and increase awareness of the growing need for access to recovery support services. The film, released last month, tells the story of a pair of grade-A school students, who spiral down a path of destruction when they begin using heroin.
“I really struggled to watch it,” says Jane. “It touches on all those universal themes that young people struggle with today, like peer pressure.”
“And that parents struggle with too,” interjects Mitch, “because the parents in the film are apathetic and they don't think it's going to happen to them, which is exactly how it was for my family. We jumped on it when we could but we always thought that it would just go away of it's own accord.
“We didn't know the signs to look for. Now, having gone through that experience, we can speak to parents in schools to educate them, but it's not always easy,” he adds.
“We went into one school a couple of years ago in Hampstead [London] that had about 2,000 children attending. It could have been a sell-out parents evening, but only 20 parents turned up [to hear us talk].
“In a nice affluent area like Hampstead, people think it's not going to happen to them. And guess what? It happened to us, in a really nice affluent area.
“Drug addiction is as indiscriminate as cancer. There are so many reasons, especially with young women, that they fall into this trap, and it's made even worse by the fact they can't speak to their parents.
“I wasn't able to have those conversations with Amy, although I did try. I was a typical parent. If we can just get parents and kids to be able to communicate with each other, that's the first step.”
Now, with almost a decade's experience of speaking to parents about addiction and learning about strategies for helping young people, Mitch says there are a few things he'd go back and tell his younger self. “One of the things we say to parents is that unless you've abused your child, the responsibility lies with your child. Nobody is forcing them, so you have to rid yourself of this guilt that it's somehow your fault,” he says.
“We never empowered Amy though. Some parents say, ‘If you're going to smoke pot, smoke it in the house', which is empowering them to take drugs. Parents have got to think about this kind of behaviour very carefully.”
Jane believes the foundation's work is becoming more important in the wake of the pandemic and its impact on young people's mental health. “It's certainly put a lot of people that are already at risk at a higher risk,” she says. “We're anticipating a lot of family breakdowns and there's a lot of isolation too. Even students going off to university for the first time aren't having the same student life.
“Year on year, we're seeing budgets cut for a problem that is actually mounting,” she adds. “There are some fantastic people in the country providing recovery services, but before us, there wasn't anyone providing a facility specifically for women.
“We were coming across women that were in treatment and were desperately frightened of where they were going to go afterwards. If people don't have safe housing to go onto, like Amy's Place, they don't stand a chance [of recovering]. It's vital we give people the opportunity to be supported and to learn to live without substances.
“Plus, when someone starts using again, that's when they're at their most vulnerable, because their resistance has dropped and they might not be aware that they can't take what they were taking before.”
Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of Amy's passing, and the same milestone for the Amy Winehouse Foundation. And while the circumstances behind it were tragic, Mitch is proud of the work it's doing.
“The foundation, Jane and Janis [Amy's mum] are rightly lauded for the work that we do in the community. We just haven't got any time for anything else. We will continue to help young people who need us the most.”