Can we stop violence before it starts?

4 October 2019
Exploring the antisocial trajectories of young people with substance use problems
Siobhan Lawler, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use studies the link between drugs, violence and whether research can change the trajectories of vulnerable young people.

Studies show that young people who binge drink are up to five times more likely to be violent than those who don’t, and a clear relationship between drug use and violence. Despite this, little is known about how these problems develop and influence each other over time. Siobhan’s PhD project looks at this old question from a new perspective.

Siobhan Lawler

Siobhan Lawler

“We know that through no fault of their own people become entrenched in complex cycles of disadvantage. It is our responsibility as a society to support vulnerable people to access the opportunities that they need to break this cycle,” says Siobhan.

“Using a developmental approach we can try to understand how drug use, aggression and violence develop over time and what age is ideal to intervene to make the most difference.”

With support from the Matilda Centre, Siobhan will travel to Italy in September to present findings from her study on judges sentencing remarks at the Violence in Adults and Youth Conference.To explore these trajectories, Siobhan’s project utilises data from multiple innovative studies, including the CAP Study (which focuses on Australian adolescents), the International Study of Social Deviance (focusing on young Australian adults) and a new study led by Siobhan that examines themes in judges sentencing remarks for violent crimes involving substance use committed by young Australian adults.

“When we examine the content of these decisions we see that judges are divided in their opinions around the role of drugs in violent crime,” says Siobhan. “Most judges recognised the impact of substance use dependence on offending, as well as the psychological, physical, genetic, historical and mental health influences. In the remainder there was a clear narrative of agency and choice, that ‘they should have known better’ or ‘they shouldn’t have taken the drug in the first place’. Despite this divide, most judges recognised the importance of addressing substance use dependence for the offender to be rehabilitated.”

In the past few years, Siobhan has been in contact with over 2,000 young people who participated in the CAP Study and the International Study of Social Deviance. She aims to use these findings to examine the benefits of a selective prevention program in reducing antisocial behaviour as well as to identify key developmental windows for intervention.

“If we get in early we could potentially prevent these problems from developing in the first place,” says Siobhan. “At the very least we might be able to achieve greater harm minimisation than if we respond later when people have been experiencing these problems over their lifetime.”

Siobhan’s PhD is supervised by the Matilda Centre’s Dr Lexine StapinskiDr Emma Barrett and Professor Maree Teesson.

For further information about the CAP Study contact Associate Professor Nicola Newtown at

For further information about the International Study of Social Deviance contact Dr Emma Barrett at