Looking after Them

A Community Conversation brought to you by the Drug Education Network.
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The Conversation

It can be upsetting to find out that a young person is using drugs. However, there are lots of places that can help them with their drug use.

Importantly, there are also places that you can go to get support for yourself while you assist them.

Learn more in another conversation:
The importance of self-care when supporting others

Young people see drug use in lots of places: they see drugs being used at home, on TV, in advertisements and on social media.

Some young people will choose to use drugs. They might be offered something at a party or seek them out for themselves. Problems with drug use can happen in any family, so what do we do if it happens in ours?

In this conversation, we will:

  • look at drug use and its effects on mental health
  • explore how habits and behaviours change
  • offer tips for supporting a young person who is using drugs
  • talk about stigma, what it means, and how to deal with it
  • share places where you can learn more.
A man standing atop a hill, reaching down to help a young boy climb up. Illustration.

Important notes:

When we say carer in this conversation, we mean parents, guardians and any other adult who cares about a young person.

When we say drugs in this conversation, we mean all kinds of drugs. This includes things like alcohol, cigarettes and prescription medicines, as well as other drugs like cannabis, ‘nangs’ or vapes.


Helpful terms

Let’s cover some helpful terms before we explore how you can support someone who is using drugs.

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When a drug is used regularly, its effect on our body decreases.

For example, if you drink alcohol often, you might find that you can drink more before you start to feel drunk.

Dependence (addiction)

Dependence is not being able to stop doing or using something, especially something harmful. You might feel unhappy or sick when you don't have the drug.


The feeling when you cut back or stop using a drug. People often feel intense things or become very sick during withdrawal.

How it feels depends on:

  • the type of drug being used
  • how long the drug has been used
  • the health of the person using drugs
  • and their access to support


A very strong feeling of wanting to use a drug that hasn't been used in a while. Cravings happen because the body has gotten used to having the drug.

Cravings tell people that the quickest way for them to feel good again is to use the drug.

Read more: Glossary of (drug) Terms by Positive Choices

Could the young person I care for be using drugs?

This is a common question asked by carers, and while it is possible, it’s not as likely as you might think.

A young woman seen from behind who is holding a cigarette and lighter behind her back. In front of her, an older woman is entering the room, looking worried. Illustration.

Most young people in Australia don’t use alcohol or drugs.  Drug use has declined in young people aged 12-17.

Young people may have the idea that drug use is normal because they hear stories that “everyone is doing it.” This gives them the idea that drug use is normal.

But by choosing not to use drugs, they will be among most people their age.

Learn more in another conversation:
Information about drugs and young people

How do I find out if they are using drugs?

Some carers worry that a young person might be using drugs. We may think that finding out will help us to make sense of any changes to their behaviour.

Although there are signs that may point towards drug use, it may not be the case.

Unless a young person tells you that they are using drugs, you cannot know for sure.

This is because drug use affects us all in different ways.

A hand holding a magnifying glass over a background of the word 'fact' repeated. Illustration.

Is it mental illness, drugs, or something else?

Sometimes we might jump to the conclusion that they are taking drugs because of our own fears. We all have our own ideas about what drug use could mean and what it “looks like”.

Drugs are often not the cause of changes to a young person's behaviour. Many behaviours we might think of as worrying can be very normal for teenagers.

Mood swings, asking for privacy, or spending less time with loved ones can happen for lots of reasons. Some signs that we think might mean drug use could point toward other issues.

For example: mood swings are common for people who use drugs. They are also common for young people going through hormonal changes.

It is hard to know whether behaviours are due to the normal process of growing up, or because something is wrong.

A teenage girl with long hair, and her father who has long hair and is wearing a baseball cap. They are smiling widely. Illustration.
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There are some signs you can look out for. If you see them, you might want to check in with the young person:

  • a sudden or extreme change in mood
  • feeling tired, even after they have had a good night's sleep
  • choosing sleep over things they enjoy, like hobbies
  • thinking slowly or in unusual ways
  • changes to the way they talk.

If these changes are there, but they tell you they are not using drugs, it might be time to speak with their GP.

Remember that privacy is important to all of us. Looking through a young person’s room or things without their knowledge could really damage your relationship with them.

Keeping an open and trusting relationship is more important in the long term.

A younger woman and an older woman sitting at a table having a discussion. The young woman has long straight hair, and the older woman has glasses and coily hair. Illustration.

If you think that a young person might be using drugs:

  • give yourself time to think about how your feelings might affect your response
  • respect the privacy of the young person
  • do some research: make sure you have the right information to share with them
  • if you can, talk to them about their possible drug use when you are both calm and in a private place
  • let them know you want to help and support them
Learn more in another conversation:
Speaking to young people about alcohol and other drugs

What do I do if I find out that they are using drugs?

It is normal to have strong feelings if you find out that a person you care about is using drugs. But it is important to remember that most young people do not develop problems because of experimental use.

They may use something once out of curiosity and choose not to use it again.

If you know for sure that the young person has used or is using drugs, the first step is to talk to them.

  • ask questions: It's okay to ask them directly what they have used, how much, and why.
  • get the facts: find trustworthy information about the drug, like the short and long-term effects.
  • be clear about your views: explain what you think and feel, and why.
  • try not to react: make it easy for them to talk to you. Keep things casual and relaxed. This will help you talk about their drug use without strong emotions getting in the way.
  • use empathy: try to imagine how the young person might be feeling. Be willing to listen to them without judgement.
  • focus on their health: let them know you care about them, and that you want them to be healthy.
  • talk to their teachers and coaches: if they are showing poor behaviour or are struggling in school or sport, their teachers and coaches might be able to help.
  • be a role model: show them the behaviour you want them to have. If you drink alcohol, set a good example. Have alcohol-free days, and don't drink and drive.
  • seek support: there are many services that can help young people to deal with drug issues. Not everyone who uses drugs will need to go to rehab.

Read more: Seeking Help by the Australian Drug Foundation
Learn more in another conversation:
The importance of self-care when supporting others
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Can I stop them from using drugs?

You can help to stop a young person from starting to use drugs.

You can talk to them about boundaries. It is important that you get their input in the process. Young people are less likely to stick to boundaries that have been set for them without a discussion.

Learn more in another conversation:
Increasing the safety of young people around drugs

You can also encourage and support someone to quit. Research strongly suggests that forcing someone to quit doesn’t work in the long term.

You can talk to them about keeping safe when they are using drugs, and share information or treatment options.

An older man with his arm around a younger man. They are sitting down and looking at a phone which the young man is holding. Illustration.

We suggest you don’t use ‘scare tactics’ to try to frighten them into quitting.

It might be tempting, but untrue information can stop them from learning how to make their own informed choices. It could also make them even more curious about drugs and increase their interest in wanting to experience them.

Why can't they just stop?

Some people find that their drug use grows beyond their control, and they become dependent on (or, addicted to) a substance. Many carers want the young person to go straight into treatment. They feel frustrated when they hear that you can't force someone to change if they don’t want to.

Motivation is what makes a person interested in doing something, or in acting in a particular way.  The best type of motivation comes from within us; we do things because we want to do them.  When we want to do something, we’ll be more likely to succeed.

A person who is using drugs has to want to stop.

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What can I do to help them recover?

Carers need to know that recovery is not a simple process.

It is complex and can involve a lot of steps and different approaches. What works for one person does not always work for others. Recovery isn't a step-by-step process, but one based on piece by piece change. There will be setbacks and learnings that occur right through the journey.

For many people, the first step is realising that their drug use is having a negative impact on their life. They might also begin to see how it effects the people around them.

Sharing those realisations with you is the next step.

Two people in a car as seen from behind. A person with shoulder length hair is driving, and the passenger has long hair. Illustration.

How behaviour change works... and how you can help

Making changes can be tough. A fear of failure or the comfort of a known routine are just two things that can make it harder. Change makes us try new things, even when we might not want to.

Cutting back or stopping drug use is a type of health behaviour change. This kind of change has different stages that we move through as we try something out and adjust to the new parts.

While it looks simple, it is very normal for people to jump back and forth between the different stages.

Let's take a closer look at these different stages of change and what they look and sound like:

"I'm not planning to quit."

You see a problem, but the young person doesn't. This can cause confusion and conflict.

  • focus on your relationship with the young person. Stay connected with them
  • share facts with the young person from trusted sources
  • explore what they know about the risks
  • look at ways to reduce the harms

In health behaviour change, this stage is called "precontemplation".

"I'm thinking about quitting, but I'm not sure."

The young person may want to change, while also wanting things to stay the same.

  • help them weigh up the good things and not so good things about using drugs
  • help them to think of reasons for change and the risks of not changing
  • encourage them – it may increase their confidence in their ability to change
  • maintain open communication with them
  • remind them that while they may not be ready to make changes just yet, change is possible
  • help them plan to cut down on the way to quitting

In health behaviour change, this stage is called "contemplation".

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"I'm planning to quit... soon."

The young person wants to change and will take some first steps.

  • help them set some clear goals and a realistic plan for making a change. Remind them small steps are valuable
  • offer encouragement and praise
  • assist them with problem solving. Sometimes they need help applying information to their life
  • help them to find others who can also support them.  It might be a friend, teacher, or sports coach

In health behaviour change, this stage is called "preparation".

"I'm quitting."

They're ready: they're making the change.

  • recognise the positive steps they’ve taken towards change (more encouragement and praise)
  • help them with any symptoms they have during withdrawal. Treat the symptoms as they come: painkillers for pain, fans for being too hot, blankets for being too cold.
  • if the symptoms get too much, get medical help. A GP might have some suggestions, and they can refer you to a drug treatment service if it is needed.
  • help them with any feelings of loss. They might have moved away from a group of friends they feel they belong with and feel like they have lost important people. They might be feeling sad about the good times they had with the drug. Talking about it can help. You can also help them find someone else to talk to, like a counsellor.
  • help them think of other ways to use their time and thoughts. If they used to enjoy music or sport, gently encourage them to return to these activities. If there was anything they wanted to do as a child but never got to, now is a great time.

In health behaviour change, this stage is called "Action".

"I've quit using this drug."

They haven't used the drug for at least 6 months. The change is lasting.

  • provide ongoing encouragement
  • help them think of ways to prevent relapse and deal with lapses
  • remind them of the long term benefits

In health behaviour change, this stage is called "maintenance".

"Whoops... I used the drug, but I'm still trying to quit."

In health behaviour change, this is called a "lapse." The young person used the drug once or twice, but they don't want to go back to using it again. They might have had a stressful moment and used the drug to cope, or maybe the desire to use got too strong to resist.

After it happens, they go right back to trying to stay quit.

  • remind them that a slip-up is not a failure - it's a chance to learn.
  • remind them that they are still learning how to manage long-term change
  • support them to go back to quitting
  • congratulate them for recognising the mistake

"I've gone back to using this drug... (and maybe I'm not planning to quit)"

In health behaviour change, this stage is called a '"relapse". The young person had quit for a time, but they have gone back to using the drug regularly. They might go back to not wanting to change, but it is more likely they will start planning to quit again.

Sometimes, a relapse lasts for a short period. Sometimes they last for a long time.

Each time a person tries to quit, they are more likely to stay quit. Each time they learn something from the attempt. Even if it feels like it, the person isn't starting from scratch.

  • don't panic. It sounds easy and we know it isn't, but there is value in staying calm
  • remind them that they can go back to quitting whenever they want
  • let them know you are here when they are ready to try again
  • set boundaries. You need to look after yourself and other family members too.
  • find support for yourself. Relapses can be hard on everybody.
Read more: Supporting someone through Recovery by the Australian Drug Foundation

A word on language

Carers should always use language that doesn’t shame or blame when talking about drug use with young people.

Why? Because language matters. It shapes our views on drug use and affects how we respond to people who use drugs.

  • words like 'addict', 'clean' and 'dirty' reinforce stereotypes and lead to judgement, blaming and shaming
  • fear of stigma and being labelled as a 'drug user' can and does stop people from looking for treatment or support
  • being mindful about the words we use is not about being 'politically correct' or 'woke'. It is simple respect and kindness. The right language allows a person to feel that they have power over their life.
Read more: Language Matters by the Network of Alcohol and other Drug Agencies
A young woman holding her hands over her ears and looking down. Around her, many hands point at her. Illustration.

What is Stigma?

It is common for people who use drugs to feel the effects of stigma and discrimination.

'Stigma' is the disapproval of a person based on something that sets them apart from others. In the case of drug use, stigma is often caused by false beliefs about addiction.

The fear of being left out or judged because of drug use can and does stop people from seeking help.

This is why we must support people who wish to seek help. If you focus on your feelings about their drug use, it could deepen the shame they are already feeling.


Drug dependence is ranked as the number one most stigmatised health issue in the world. Dependence on alcohol is right behind, ranked at number four.


Stigma affects everyone. Some people experience ‘self-stigma’ – they feel stigmatised by their own feelings and views about their drug use.

Some people feel stigmatised by other peoples’ opinions or disapproval when they are in public spaces – this is called social stigma. Many people also feel that their loved ones treat them poorly because of their drug use and that they are treated unfairly because of it.

Stigma can also be found in social structures like hospitals and schools where someone might be excluded because they have broken the rules in the past... or because of the beliefs of the people who work there.

For example: a person might have trouble getting a prescription for pain medication as an ex-user of drugs, even though they have real pain that they need help with.

A doctor and patient reviewing information in a folder. The man has short hair and a beard. The woman has long black hair. Illustration.

So, how do we deal with stigma?

Stories about young people not knowing where to go to find help are common in Tasmania.

When help is found, there are often other roadblocks that stop them from getting help. Stigma can be one of those roadblocks.

Stigma does not stop people from using drugs or inspire them to find help. Stigma can also trigger people to use drugs or give up on making changes to their life. We share and spread stigma with our words, body language and actions. Sometimes these signs are easy to spot, sometimes they are not so clear.

To deal with stigma, we can:

  • focus on the person, not their actions
  • use appropriate language
  • be compassionate
  • use empathy
  • remember that our language (both our words and body language) can make drug problems worse

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Accessing a service

There are many places to find support for all the people feeling the effects of a young person’s substance use.

You could start by talking to a GP, teacher or other school staff. Counsellors and helplines can also suggest ways to help.

Other trusted adults close to the young person may also be able to support you both. Getting support for yourself is just as important as getting help for the young person.

Looking for a service? Click here to visit our Find Help page.
A large man with buzzed hair talking on his mobile phone. He is holding a glass of water and has a relieved expression. Illustration.

What will I be asked when seeking help?

Youth Drug and Alcohol services and rehabilitation facilities receive referrals for young people all the time.

It is not common for places to be able to begin working with the young person right away. Be aware that you may need to wait.

When you first contact them, they will likely ask questions to make sure that they can offer the right help. This way you can avoid waiting for the wrong type of service.

In most cases a service will need to speak to the young person without you present. You can still let them know if you think something will be useful for them to be aware of.

"The wheels don't fall off between 9 and 5."
-DEN focus group participant, 2022

After Hours Support

There are a number of 24/7 helplines that run between 5pm and 9am. While this is not ideal for long term help, it is a good place to start. It may ease your concerns in the moment.

Alcohol & Drug Information Service (ADIS)

A telephone service providing information, advice and referrals on any matter involving alcohol or other drugs.

1800 811 994

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Family Drug Support

Family drug support provides up to date information on all aspects of alcohol and drug use relative to the families of alcohol and other drug users.

1300 368 186


You are not alone. We're here to listen.

Every 30 seconds, a person in Australia reaches out to Lifeline for help.

We are a national charity providing all Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.

We exist so that no person in Australia has to face their darkest moments alone.

13 11 66

Kids Helpline

Kids Helpline is Australia’s only free (even from a mobile), confidential 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25. Qualified counsellors at Kids Helpline are available via WebChat, phone or email.

We care and listen, any time and for any reason.

1800 55 1800

Wrapping it up

Growing up is tough. Young people are asked to adapt to many fast changes. For many it is also a time of vulnerability; some issues dealing with change are very normal.

It can be hard to know how to respond if a young person is using drugs. All families have their own ways of coping. It is okay to feel angry, upset or scared. There is no 'right' way to respond.

Helping the young person to build up their self-esteem as they recover can be a team effort. Reach out to others for help, it's not something you can or should do by yourself.

A man with long hair comforting a woman with short hair. The woman has her hands up to her face and appears to be crying. Illustration.

In this Conversation we learned:

  • how to find out if a young person is using drugs... or needs other help
  • what we can do if they are using drugs
  • what we can do to help them recover
  • how behaviour change works, and how we can help at each stage
  • what stigma is, and how to use our words carefully to support someone
  • what to expect when calling a service
  • what options are available after-hours
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Looking for more information?

Check out the resources below:

Answer a few quick questions to be matched to services and information that is the right fit for you, or someone you care about, in just minutes. Path 2 Help is run by the Australian Drug Foundation.

Can't find a service in Tasmania on Path 2 Help? Try searching CODE.

The Family and Friend Support Programs are a set of online interventions and support packages designed by experts to help families and friends supporting a loved one who may be using ice, alcohol and/or other drugs. They also offer information and support for people who may be experiencing domestic and family violence, as well as people who are living in rural or remote regions.

Family Drug Support Online is designed to provide support for families and friends of people using drugs and alcohol - to help them become more resilient and better able to cope on their journey with the user.

The site offers different support for different circumstances. Where the drug use has been going on for some time, the site presents a series of video chapters about a family support group. The chapters are designed to be viewed in order. The group is led by family drug support specialist Tony Trimingham, OAM.

On the site, 'drugs' also includes alcohol, and 'families' includes friends of drug users.

What is substance misuse, and what are the signs it is happening? How common is it? Find the answers to these questions and more in this factsheet from Lifeline.

Positive Choices is an online portal to help Australian schools and communities access accurate, up-to-date evidence based alcohol and other drug education resources.

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Services and Helplines

The Alcohol and Other Drug Awareness (AOD) program is designed to deliver education, referral pathways and advocacy to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait community of Circular Head.

You are not alone. We're here to listen. We are a national charity providing all Australians experiencing emotional distress with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. We exist so that no person in Australia has to face their darkest moments alone.

Kids Helpline is Australia’s only free (even from a mobile), confidential 24/7 online and phone counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25.

Qualified counsellors at Kids Helpline are available via WebChat, phone or email anytime and for any reason.

Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) exist in each state and territory. They provide confidential telephone counselling, information and referral service and operate 24 hours. ADIS is operated by Turning Point.

Youth, Family & Community Connections Inc. (YFCC) is a not for profit, community organisation that provides a range of services to young people, families and individuals in communities across the North West Coast and West Coast of Tasmania. YFCC envisions a community where individuals and families have the opportunity to achieve their goals and to seek positive change.

For more information on specific services, please visit the YFCC website.

The Salvation Army provides a large array of spiritual and social services throughout Tasmania. Our state office for Tasmania is located in Derwent Park.

The Salvation Army Australia is an international Christian movement, united by faith and giving hope where it’s needed most. Across Australia – in cities, country towns and rural communities – our work touches every demographic and age group. As both a church and charity, we can preach and speak about justice, compassion, and other issues that support the welfare of others and see them as a whole person – body, mind and spirit.

Alcohol and other drug services

We're one of Australia’s largest providers of alcohol and other drug treatment services. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or drugs, we can help.

The Bridge Program

The Bridge Program uses the Community Integration Model. Our comprehensive intervention package is specifically tailored to the individual's needs and focuses on multiple problem areas targeting social, recreational, familial and vocational reinforcement.

We offer both residential and non-residential components to the treatment journey which will be individually negotiated with you according to your needs. Our day and residential programs are both 10 weeks in duration and are supported by outreach and family programs. All aspects are included in all three locations - Hobart, Launceston and Ulverstone.

Holyoake is a leading counselling service for people whose lives are adversely affected by alcohol, drugs, gambling or other addictive behaviours. Holyoake provides a range of specialised, research based therapeutic programs for children, adults and families facing these challenges. Our team of highly skilled counsellors have extensive experience in the treatment of addictive behaviors.

Who we help

Holyoake supports individuals and their families to manage the challenges of any addictive behaviour which can include:

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Gambling
  • Anger
  • Internet
  • Pornography
  • Sex
  • Eating disorders
  • Shoplifting.

Holyoake supports people who have an addictive behaviour as well as people who are affected by another person’s addictive behaviour.

Holyoake has programs to support people of all ages, all communities, and in all circumstances – children, adolescents, adults, parents, families, couples, students, workplaces, victims of abuse and people in the criminal justice system. Holyoake will make no judgements about you or your circumstances.

Family drug support provides up to date information on all aspects of alcohol and drug use relative to the families of alcohol and other drug users.

Cornerstone Youth Services Inc. (CYS) delivers a range of services to young people aged 12 – 25, their families and friends, in North and North-West Tasmania. We focus on health promotion, education, early intervention and prevention, advocacy, case management and developing help-seeking behaviours.

Anglicare Tasmania is a not-for-profit organisation providnig a range of support services to the people of Tasmania. In response to the Christian faith, Anglicare strives to achieve social justice and provide the opportunity for people in need to reach fullness of life. We are guided in this mission by the values of compassion, hope, respect and justice.

Anglicare provide:

  • Disability support services
  • Aged and home care services
  • Mental health support
  • Alcohol and other drug services
  • Financial counselling
  • Gambling support
  • Housing support
  • Support for children, young people and their families

The Tasmanian Alcohol and Drug Service offers a range of information, education, treatment and community-based supports for Tasmanians affected by alcohol and drug use. Our services are free, voluntary and confidential.

We provide a number of programs to help people and their families with alcohol, tobacco and other drug issues.

Our services include:

  • intake and assessment
  • case management and coordination of care
  • withdrawal management (detox services)
  • relapse prevention
  • secondary consultation
  • brief intervention
  • counselling, group work and therapy
  • health promotion, information and community education.

We are located in Launceston, Hobart and Ulverstone with services provided to rural areas.

To access services we require an Intake and Referral form to be completed. For any queries please call Statewide Alcohol and Drug Service, phone 1300 139 641.

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 ‘addiction’ (2023) Cambridge Online Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/addiction, accessed 26 June 2023.  

Alcohol and Drug Foundation (2019a) ‘Alcohol and other drugs: Stigma. A Background Paper’, https://cdn.adf.org.au/media/documents/ADF_Stigma_background_paper.pdf.    

Alcohol and Drug Foundation (2019b) ‘Stigma and people who use drugs’, Insights, https://adf.org.au/insights/stigma-people-who-use-drugs/


Alcohol and Drug Foundation (2021) ‘Stigma – why words matter’, Insights, https://adf.org.au/insights/stigma-why-words-matter/


Alcohol and Drug Foundation (2022) ‘Supporting someone through recovery’, Insights, https://adf.org.au/insights/supporting-recovery/, accessed 21 June 2023.


Alcohol and Drug Foundation (2023) Worried about a young person’s drug use?, https://adf.org.au/talking-about-drugs/parenting-talk/worried-young-aod/


Positive Choices, Glossary of drug and alcohol information and terms (n.d.) Positive Choices, https://positivechoices.org.au/teachers/glossary


Headspace (2021) ‘Alcohol and other drug use in young people for family and friends’, https://headspace.org.au/assets/Reports/HSP10860-AOD-Evidence-Summary_FA01.pdf.


Youth Drugs + Alcohol Advice (n.d.) What you’ll be asked when seeking help | YoDAA, https://yodaa.org.au/families-and-carers/what-you%E2%80%99ll-be-asked-when-seeking-help


All illustrations are © Drug Education Network 2023. All rights reserved.

Any adaptations are credited below the image.

Authored by Clare T. Edited by Zoe K., Deni S., with contributions from many other DEN team members.

Special thanks to the participants of the focus groups for the Community Conversations project, who helped shape these resources.

Many thanks for the reference photographs by artists at CC0 stock sites: Pixabay.com and Pexels.com

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