Growing problem of teenage addiction

The South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (SACENDU, 2005) highlights how substance abuse is becoming an increasingly difficult problem among adolescents in South Africa.

Although there is a fair amount of variation in the age at which drinking first occurs, many studies show that 90% of adolescent drinkers have had their first drink by the age of 14 years. It also appears that some adolescents have been exposed to alcohol at even younger ages, with reports of drinking before the age of 10 being in evidence.

Alcohol is known as one of the gateway drugs opening up the way for experimentation with other drugs, such as cannabis, the second most common drug of abuse for adolescents according to SACENDU.

It also appears that young drinkers are at higher risk for later addiction to, or problems with other drugs. Similarly, a survey of drug and alcohol use conducted in 2002 with primary school children in Cape Town, indicated that one-fifth of primary school children have tried drugs. The average age of first using drugs was 12 years. In high schools, 45% had tried a drug, and 32% were still using drugs.

Related problems
Research conducted by the World Health Organisation (2002) has shown a strong relationship between adolescent drug abuse and other psychosocial problems like teen suicides, car accidents, school drop out, HIV/Aids and other psychiatric problems, such as depression, mood disorders, and schizophrenia.

According to SACENDU, the treatment demand for both cannabis and Mandrax-related problems is generally higher for persons under 20 years than older persons. Treatment demand for cannabis by persons under 20 years increased substantially in Mpumalanga, whereas for Mandrax a substantial increase was noted in Durban and East London.

The data also showed a steady increase in the proportion of patients under 20 years in Cape Town having heroin as a primary drug of abuse. Treatment demand by heroin patients under 20 years appeared for the first time in SACENDU data in East London. In terms of demographic changes, a steady increase in coloured patients was noted in Cape Town. Almost six out of ten heroin patients in this site are coloured.

Methamphetamine (MA), otherwise known as “tik”, has now emerged as the main substance of abuse among young patients in treatment in Cape Town, with six out of ten having it as a primary or secondary substance of abuse. The average length of time of treatment is approximately one year. Young patients who had “tik” as their primary drug of abuse came from 99 suburbs in Cape Town.

Two-thirds were male and 91% were coloured. MA use in East London, Gauteng and Mpumalanga was also reported. In Cape Town, there was a dramatic increase in patients reporting MA as their primary substance of abuse, escalating from 2% in the second half of 2003 to 19% in the second half of 2004. This represents the largest and fastest increase in the number of patients presenting with a particular drug ever noted by the SACENDU project.

Other key findings identified by SACENDU show that in all sites (Gauteng, Port Elizabeth, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Cape Town and Mpumalanga) for which age data are available, have shown an increase over the past few years in treatment demand by persons less than 20 years of age over time. Although research conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2004) does indicate that individuals in lower socioeconomic sectors are more exposed and vulnerable to the risk factors associated with substance abuse, this does not appear to rule out the problem of addiction amongst white middle-class adolescents, who appear to be turning up more frequently for treatment (SACENDU, 2005).

The population profile in Gauteng indicates that more than half the patients presenting for treatment are white and about a third are black, with a mean age of 32 years old. Eighteen percent of these patients are students or learners. See table below for an indication of the demographics and most commonly abused drug according to province and race of patients under 20 years of age in treatment for alcohol and substance abuse.

Demographics for patients in treatment under 20 years old in South Africa (SACENDU, 2005).

Province/race White African Coloured Indian Most commonly abused drug
Gauteng 26% 60% 13% 1% Cannabis, mandrax, alcohol
Mpumalanga 48% 45% 5% 2% Cannabis, alcohol
Durban 9% 52% 12% 27% Cannabis
Port Elizabeth/East London 18% 41% 37% 4% Cannabis, mandrax, alcohol
Cape Town 10% 1% 81% 9% Methamphetamine

July 2006

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