This week marks SANCA Drug Awareness Week. An increasing number of people were admitted for treatment in 2017, from 8 787 in 2016 to 10 047 across 80 centres, as reported by the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (SACENDU) project. It is vital that we look at the drug and alcohol abuse in the country and understand what drives people to abuse substances, how we can identify if a child or other family member or someone we love is addicted to any particular substances and what help there is available to treat substance abuse.
In South Africa 80% of male youth deaths are alcohol-related and drug consumption is estimated to be twice the world norm.
In a South African context and according to SACENDU, cannabis and alcohol are the substances most likely to be abused. Males over the age of 20 are the biggest abusers of alcohol while male youths are the main abusers of cannabis. It’s estimated that up to 60% of crimes committed involve the use of substances and 80% of male youth deaths are alcohol-related. South Africa also has a rate of foetal alcohol syndrome which is 5 times that of the US.
These statistics are frightening and the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that a child’s family environment is very important and may contribute to their substance abuse, especially if they have a family member who also has a problem with addiction. So it’s important to understand the factors that can potentially drive people to abuse substances.
What drives youth to use and abuse substances?
Marna Acker, an occupational therapist at Akeso Clinic Nelspruit, explains that some people are more likely than others to abuse substances and develop an addiction. Factors in their lives, other than someone else using within the household, include family background and genetics, mental health issues, work stress, financial pressure and relationship problems.
She says, “These factors can make the person at risk to value substance abuse as a coping mechanism, even though it is against their interest in the long term.” She continues, “There are also other factors involved, such as peer pressure – particularly when substance use is a norm; boredom, and the feeling of not having a sense of purpose can also be contributing factors, as can feelings of depression, anxiety, and lack of control.”
NIDA also states that most people are most likely to begin abusing drugs during adolescence and young adulthood. They explain, “There are many reasons adolescents use these substances, including the desire for new experiences, an attempt to deal with problems or perform better in school, and simple peer pressure. Adolescents are 'biologically wired' to seek new experiences and take risks, as well as to carve out their own identity. Trying drugs may fulfill all of these normal developmental drives, but in an unhealthy way that can have very serious long-term consequences.”
What long-term effects does substance abuse have?
The longer an addiction lasts, the more stress and strain it puts on the individual and, while different substances have different effects, depression, anxiety and paranoia are among the most common long-term results of substance abuse.
Use of substances can also lead to impulsive behaviour and poor judgement. Alcohol abuse contributes to risky sexual behaviour, increasing the chances of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as neurological disorders and chronic memory disorders. Opioids, such as morphine and heroin, can result in accidental overdose. And sometimes, drug abuse can actually increase a user's risk of developing a mental disorder.
Acker says, “Long-term drug abuse can also affect the physical health of the user, especially the kidneys, liver, heart and lungs.”
While cannabis seems to be a drug that most young individuals seem to experiment with, let’s take a closer look at the effects of the popular drug. “Cannabis users,” says Acker, “may experience poor attention span, as well as memory and learning loss.
“Poor performance, permanent cognitive impairment, lack of motivation, immunosuppression, and cardiac and lung complications are all common effects.
“In addition, cannabis-induced psychosis may occur. Several studies have linked marijuana use to increased risk for psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, although whether and to what extent it actually causes these conditions is not always easy to determine. On top of all these possible outcomes, sustained cannabis use can also have a negative impact on interpersonal relationships, work performance, financial management, and more. The list is endless."
Acker also warns, “Increased tolerance is dangerous as it causes the individual to use more and more of a drug to achieve the desired euphoric or stimulated state. This increases the person’s risk for overdose and even death.”
How can I identify if my child is using drugs?
If you or someone you love is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they may exhibit some or all of the following physical, psychological and social signs and symptoms:
- Weight loss
- Skin colour change or skin outbreaks
- Intense urges or cravings as the addiction develops
- Withdrawal symptoms leading to suboptimal performance and physical craving
- Isolation, depression, anxiety and paranoia
- Unhealthy friendships with people who have similar habits
- Financial difficulties due to large amounts of money being spent on drugs or alcohol
- Neglecting responsibilities, such as work or personal obligations
- Poor judgement, including risky behaviours such as stealing, lying, engaging in unsafe sex, selling drugs, etc.
What substance abuse treatments are available?
- The National Department of Social Development in partnership with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has run the 24-hour Substance Abuse Helpline for over 10 years: Call 0800 12 13 14. If you are unable to call you can also SMS 32312 and a counsellor will call you back.
- SADAG has also created an online "Contact a Counsellor" button. After clicking on the link, filling in the short form with your details and submitting, a counsellor will get your details and contact you to help.
- Along with the SADAG Facebook page, there are also other online communities you can get in contact with for help or simply to learn more about substance abuse and how you can help someone with an addiction problem. The Ke Moja Substance Abuse Facebook page is another great online platform.
- For those with alcoholism, outpatient programmes are offered by organisations like the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependences (SANCA), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
- Short-term inpatient programs – 21 to 30 days, including detoxification – and longer-term in-patient programs – 90 days to a year or more – are offered by addiction clinics throughout the country such as Akeso Clinics.
It's extremely important for people with addictions to seek help and if you know someone who can’t make the leap themselves, it’s important for you to then be supportive and encourage them to do so. Acker says it’s all about ongoing support, as well as continued counselling and therapy. “The recovery process is life-long, there is no recipe for success,” she says. But hopefully, increased awareness for this increasingly, life-threatening illness, is the key to beating it."
Do you have a child or parent who had an addiction problem? How did they beat it? Tell us your story by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and we may publish it on the site. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.
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