Substance abuse

Alarming rise in substance abuse among youths calls for policy-level intervention

In mid-June, a worried couple in their mid-forties visited the Koteshwar-based Narcotics Control Bureau with a problem. The couple came from a well-off family in Bhaisepati, Lalitpur and were concerned about the abnormal habits of their only, 20-year-old, son. Over the past few weeks, their son came home late at night, his eyes red. Curiously, however, he didn’t reek of alcohol or cigarettes. He would easily get irritated, ask the couple for money frequently, and show no interest in communicating with them or their relatives. If he didn’t leave the house, he would stay holed up in his room, with the door locked from inside. The room would be a mess, with chocolate wrappers strewn all over the floor. All tell-tale signs that the wide-eyed young adult had gotten into drugs.

The bureau asked the parents to take their son immediately to a drug rehabilitation centre. The centre confirmed what the couple had suspected for long: the boy was addicted to drugs.

This is, of course, far from a singular case. The number of Nepali youngsters abusing drugs has spiked alarmingly over the past decade, according to Superintendent of Police Chakra Raj Joshi, also the spokesperson for the bureau.

The Nepal Drug Users Survey report released by the Home Ministry in June 2020 found as many as 46,480 people abusing drugs in Bagmati Province alone. Of them 40,855 were male. In 2020, the number of drug users in Nepal was 130,424, after a three-fold increase from 43,309 in 2008. In 2012, there were 91,534 drug users in Nepal.

The government’s 2020 survey showed that of those addicted to drugs, 7.2 percent were from the age group 15-19 years, 34.3 percent were from the group 20-25 years, 35.2 percent from the 25-29 years age group and 12.6 percent were in the 30-34 years group.

The survey is done every five years. The next survey is projected to show an over two-fold rise in the number of drug users. “Substance abuse among the youths is alarming,” Joshi said.

Police say Kathmandu has the highest number of drug users, followed by other districts like Jhapa and Sunsari.

Senior Superintendent of Police Gobinda Thapaliya, who is also the bureau chief, said that it is high time awareness programmes against drug abuse were organised across the country. Given that most of those who abuse drugs are teenagers and young adults, parents should be more careful, Thapaliya added.

By the time their parents come to know about the problem, the situation, in most cases, is already too serious.

Take, for instance, the case of a well-educated, 26-year-old girl from Sanepa, Lalitpur. When her 50-year-old single mother visited the bureau seeking its support to solve the erratic behaviour of her unmarried daughter six months ago, it was too late.

The young woman, who worked in a reputed international non-government organisation, had resigned her well paid job all of a sudden. She was not regular at home during nights, and would often be out of contact for three to four days without informing her mother. She would ask her mother for big amounts of money and if she didn’t get what she demanded, would quarrel with her mother, arguing that when she worked, she had given 60 percent of her income to her.

Like the boy in the earlier case, the girl would get irritated with her mother for no apparent reason. If the mother asked where she had been, and why she had quit such a high paying job soon after the Covid-19 pandemic, she would get angry, shout at her and stay quiet.

“We asked the mother to take her to a rehabilitation centre. It was later known that she had quit her high-paying job because she was into severe substance abuse,” said Joshi, the bureau spokesperson.

Experts point out a lapse in parenting as one of the causes of young people getting into drugs.

“The main problem with the parents is that even though they find their childrens’ activities suspicious, they don’t believe that their kids can do drugs. But once they learn that they were into drugs, they don’t treat them well,” Thapaliya, the bureau chief, said. “Their children need more love and care to get rid of the addiction.”

He said the best way to keep children from getting into drugs is to keep observing their daily activities carefully, and giving them more personal time.

“Besides, parents should not let their children stay idle,” Joshi advised. “They should make them busy with creative activities.”

Be it curiosity, peer pressure, seeking instant relief, or to escape anxiety, many youngsters are enticed into trying addictive substances. Often, they have no idea of the dangers their addiction can cause, said Dr Basudev Karki, a consultant psychiatrist at the Patan Mental Hospital.

Drug addiction among teenagers and adults has become a great social problem of late. “Instead of taking it as a crime, parents and the society as a whole should create a conducive environment for them to get out of it,” Karki said.

Medical anthropologists see the issue of drug addiction among teens and adults through multiple perspectives.

Kapil Babu Dahal, a medical anthropologist and assistant professor at the Tribhuvan University’s Central Department of Anthropology, said drug addictions have increased because of changing lifestyles and social dynamics such as the increase in the number of nuclear families. As the younger generation spends most of their time on smartphones, the interaction between parents and children is lacking, he said.

“Many parents, burdened with the demands of their jobs, do not get to spend much time with their kids,” Dahal said. “They may falsely assume that their kids won’t do drugs.”

Dahal said the problem can be controlled by effective law enforcement, increasing police surveillance, and making parents more aware of their child’s behavioural changes. He also suggested that the government should prioritise open spaces for sports activities and make libraries widely available.

“The state should work at the policy level to solve the problem of drug addiction,” he said. “There should be a long-term vision.”

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