Addiction is a dark hole with an end difficult to measure. Once inside, drastic measures are required in order to climb out as quickly as possible. With addiction, time is of an especial essence. The best cure, which precedes culture and context, and is unanimously agreed on by all authorities, is prevention.
Before exploring prevention, we need to know what addiction is and how prevalent it is in order to validate this article. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) view addiction as a disease and treat it as such. Addiction can also be thought of as the continued use of substances, despite their obvious harm. It is often a complex thing that doesn’t fit into a theoretical box, nor is cured with some kind of recovery recipe or by simply removing the substances from an addict’s life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 3.3 million deaths each year are a result of alcohol abuse and suggest at least 15.3 million people are abusing drugs. However, the United Nations Drug Report of 2016 suggests an even more severe situation: 29 million are suffering from drug use disorders, yet only 1 in 6 are receiving treatment. Within these numbers, 12 million are said to be injecting, and of these, 1.6 million are living with HIV, and 6 million with Hepatitis C. Within the South African context, 1 in 10 South Africans suffer from addiction, with the favourite substances being dagga (cannabis) and alcohol (health24.com). The devastation is unprecedented.
Identification is the first step to preventing the collateral damage of addiction. How is it spotted? Peter McCloud, Senior Social Worker at SCRC, suggests paying careful attention to thinking, feeling, and behaviour. Thinking is likely to reveal denial. The feeling may include anger, depression or a combination of these. Behaviour, besides outward expression of anger and depression, might include manipulation, clandestine behaviours and even theft later on in the onset of addiction. Once this stage is reached, intensive rehabilitation is required. However, in this article, we want to explore methods of prevention before this stage is reached.
Most available information on early prevention is focused on one group of the population: teens. However, addiction births itself in different ways for different groups of people, and therefore this article seeks to discuss addiction and prevention for both teens and adults. Of these two groups, teens are often more vulnerable since the need to take risks and experiment is a very natural part of their development. However, the early usage of substances is highly dangerous as they make real changes to the brain and its development (drugabuse.gov). Teens, with their changing emotions and desire for experience, paired with the availability of drugs, is an incubator for addiction. This is worsened by the realization that usage eases the anxiety and torment of growing up. Teens, having not yet fully developed their sense of judgment and decision-making skills, cannot accurately assess the risks of participating in dangerous activities, according to McCloud. McCloud also suggests that even the packaging of information around the danger of drugs can ironically be more dangerous, appealing to the rebelliousness of a teen looking for a way to be different, daring and noticed. Therefore, even the campaigning against drugs should be done with caution and with a knowledge of the psychology of young people.
What seems like harmless experimentation can lead to the self-medicating of deeper underlying mental health issues. Before being offended by the abstraction of this term, realize that something as common a low self-esteem fits into this bracket. Considering the nature of life and its hardships, even the most well-adjusted individual is likely to experience changes in life that might nudge them into a vulnerable mental space at least at one point in their lives. Real life is hard, making the utterly surreal experience of drugs and alcohol abuse an almost obvious choice for many. In short, if there is a flaw in a person’s self-image, mental health, family structure, peer group or world view, they are at risk of seeking a release through drugs and alcohol abuse. Availability of these substances may determine if it happens. Once the release is found, the principles of basic conditioning are set, and addiction becomes imminent.
McCloud believes teens who have a fulfilling life are less likely to want to threaten it with drugs in their experimental stage of development. Parents can facilitate a healthy, full lifestyle for their kids, by encouraging and supporting participation in sports and other healthy recreational activities. The family unit needs to be strong, with internal conflicts being resolved as they appear. Perhaps the scary part for parents is realizing that young people do need a space in which to experiment and practice independence. Shutting down that space completely for teens will lead to frustration and rebellion. To avoid this space being one that enables addiction, it should be given alongside responsibilities. Set firm boundaries to their space, and hold them accountable for their actions. The myths and connotation around drug use need to be addressed so that they are not appealing to youths. Peer pressure needs to be considered too. If parents feel the peer group is a potential hazard, moving schools is not something that should be considered too extreme.
Unlike teens, adults do not have a parent to make decisions on their behalf, therefore making prevention slightly more difficult. Adults need to self-aware and have an accurate knowledge of the process of addiction. The myths around mental illness need to be addressed on an educational and cultural level, along with the de-stigmatization of seeking help. Self-reflection is essential in order to identify any unaddressed hurt or stress factors that might develop into a trigger for substance abuse. We need to explore how people manage life and endorse new tools to cope with life’s difficulties, such as services, support groups, spiritual groups, and healthy recreational activities that don’t emphasize heavy drinking at the end of the day.
Essentially, supply and demand of drugs and alcohol need to be managed. Perhaps the supply is more of a responsibility for the governments and leaders of the world. However, as a society and as individuals, we have control over the demand. Whichever population group you fall into, here are our 5 points to take away as key to the early prevention of addiction:
Deal with life pressures. Be they family, work or peer related, if you or someone you love is under pressure in any of these fields they need support and healthy coping mechanisms such as counselling and setting boundaries.
Seek help for mental illness, hurt or trauma. Do not let the hideous things that happen in life settle scars that affect the rest of the future. It is absolutely possible to find healing, and happiness is a realistic goal. Mental health is as important as physical health, and a relationship exists between the two.
Look at the risk realistically. Are substances available to you? Do you know people who are currently abusing substances? Have you ever felt you wanted to? Explore the needs you need to satisfy and find another way to do it.
Be accountable. Be transparent. Get support if you are at risk or be the support for the person in need.
Change your context. Context can mean any of the following: friends, job, or home. Be bold and be serious if you feel that your context is putting you or your loved one at risk. Take on new and healthy habits which add to your life in a positive way. Change can be difficult, but it is often necessary.
Addiction can be beaten, but it can also be prevented.
“World Drug Report 2016” United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime www.unodc.org
“For the Parents or Guardian of Young People in NA” Narcotics Anonymous www.na.org
“Preventing Drug Abuse: the best strategy” National Institute of Drug Abuse www.drugabuse.gov
“1 in 10 in SA has addiction problem.” (2013/06/13) Health24.com http://www.health24.com/Lifestyle/Street-drugs/News/Dagga-alcohol-top-SA-drug-choices-20130618