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Cancer of the youth

Namia Akhtar December 21, 2015
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“My mother would wipe tears with one of her hands while clearing away the evidence of destruction with the other…her son, her only son was an addict” lamented my acquaintance, pseudonym Lilly. Often coming home from school, she found her home in ruins accompanied by the epitome of her brother’s outburst to obtain money for Phensidyl that lain on the floor- shattered crockery, smashed furniture, broken glasses and bottles.

Her brother, pseudonym Samiul was unpredictable; at times his demonic nature unfolded as he erupted like a volcano and there were times when he behaved angelic. Lilly’s mother frequently sent him to the rehabilitation center, but it was not effective. Each time on getting released from the center he went back to his former habit a day or two later. Samiul told me that sometimes he even smuggled drugs into the hospital cabin with the help of a ward boy.

Having an addicted family member brings suffering not just to the addicted individual but to the entire family as well. During my school years I remember her being lonely, isolated, and distant from her classmates. It has been ten years that Samiul severed ties with drugs, nonetheless the consequences of his addiction is still borne by the family. Lilly aggrieved commenting on those years “those ten years of his companionship with drugs still makes us suffer.” Lilly’s family paid such exorbitant hospital fees that their wealth quickly depleted, they were then left with little to spend on her higher studies. Luckily she managed to complete her education with a government scholarship.

Even though Samiul attributed dejection in love as the cause for his addiction, the reason was much deeper. Lilly’s father was mentally ill and her siblings frequently had to witness marital discord at home. Numerous researches on drug addiction suggest that children of mentally ill parents are at a risk of substance abuse, since these children are regularly exposed to domestic conflict. These children on growing up indulge in substance abuse as a coping mechanism that continues into the adulthood bringing in negative outcomes. In addition, these children develop psychosocial problems, perform poor academically, and face difficulties in social conduct.

The Western countries have specially designed programs supporting children of mentally ill parents. Nonetheless, Bangladesh lags far behind in terms of providing mental treatment. Even though the Bangladesh government has passed the Mental Health Act 2014, little changes have been made in terms of implementation. At the present, there are only 200 psychiatrists and 50 clinical psychologists in the country, with this being the current state the implementation of such effective programs seems to be a distant dream.

Intervention from extended families is highly desirable when one parent is mentally ill. However, intervention from extended family has become limited in contemporary Bangladesh as the country is experiencing a collapse of family ties with a shift towards individualistic culture. This shifting dynamics is creating a culture of non-intervention on the family matters of extended families especially in the urban Dhaka. When Lilly pleaded for help, assistance was not provided from the extended family into curing her father or brother; rather the relatives exploited the situation into making wealth.

Mental illness and substance abuse are not isolated, rather they are connected and if proper treatment is provided to mentally ill patients then significant portion of the youth can be protected from the evils of substance abuse.

On sharing experiences of treating drug patients, Dr. Shaila Parveen, an independent practicing doctor said, “Even though there are many factors for substance abuse, family conflict is the driving force.” Families with a mentally ill member suffer from severe conflict and discord which negatively affects the children’s mental health. Samiul’s case reveals the sufferings of a family caused by drug addiction driven by mental illness. It also shows that despite being in predicament, individual members of a family are reluctant to approach mental health professionals for fear of losing social dignity. The mental illness of Lilly’s father was left untreated till his last breath.

Despite the deplorable condition of mental health treatment in our country, the government has taken very little initiatives in addressing this issue. The insignificant budget allocation for the mental health sector is its mere reflection. .44% of total Health budget is currently allocated for mental treatment.

In order to curb addiction government must focus on helping mentally ill individuals as well as their family members living in the same household. Particular focus must be placed on children with mentally ill parents, since children are the most vulnerable group. Samiul’s addiction, for example, was escalated by some of the actions of his father. His father hired two Baby taxi drivers sold Samiul four to five bottles of Phensidyl every day. This unfortunate occurrence highlights the significance of psychological well being of parents.

To strengthen the mental health sector government must provide incentives to bring back Bangladeshi and Bengali speaking clinical psychologists and psychiatrists residing abroad. Long run government strategies may include strengthening the Psychology Departments in the public and private universities through forming partnership with foreign universities.

Once the dearth of mental health professionals is resolved, counseling must be made compulsory at all schools, colleges, universities as well at all private and public offices. Psychiatric counseling will recognize individuals at risk, and prevent vulnerable individuals from substance abuse through appropriate counseling.

In addition to improving the conditions of the mental treatment in our country, the government needs administrative efficiency to curb drug addiction. There are evidences of the ineffectiveness of the security forces in obstructing the supply of drugs. On my field trip to Rajshahi two months ago, a local journalist of Chapai Nawabganj seeking anonymity said that the police were reluctant to impose strict restriction in the illegal drug trade since they profit from the illegal traders. People selling illegal drugs continue with their businesses by paying bribes to police on the occasions of raids. Furthermore, he stated that journalists are scared to make investigative reporting in drug trafficking as it makes them vulnerable to police harassment.

Drug addiction among the youth occurs from multidimensional factors thus approaches to curb drug addiction should also be multifaceted. Nonetheless, mental illness is a significant driver of drug abuse; therefore, psychological counseling must be made widely available through internet apps and free phone services. Above all, there is a greater need to restrict supply of abusive drugs through exercising strong political will and administrative efficiency.

The author is a Research Associate of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and a student of BIGD, Brac University

First published in The News Today //www.newstoday.com.bd/index.php?option=details&news_id=2430398&date=2015-12-20

You can also read it in my blog here //namiaakhtar123.wordpress.com/2015/12/19/cancer-of-the-youth/


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  1. James Warren December 30, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your story!


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