Winning the war on drugs for our youths

Dr. Christopher Tufton

September 11, 2022

From vaping of tobacco and ganja to edibles, alcohol-infused gummies and the party drug ‘molly’, Jamaican children and youths are using harmful substances and, in the process, increasing their vulnerability to developing mental health challenges, among other things.

Vaping, for example, is shown to have increased in popularity among local adolescents, with some 15 per cent of those 13-15 years having used an e-cigarette at some point in their life while 12 per cent report current use, according to the 2017 Global Youth Tobacco Survey.

DRUG STUDY

It is against this background that the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA), an agency of the Ministry of Health & Wellness, earlier this year did a rapid situational assessment to hear from our young people on the issue, while gaining insight into the associated challenges with which they are faced and to inform next steps.

The investigations captured the perspectives of 160 participants from grades eight to 10 across 13 secondary schools islandwide (except for St. Thomas). Twenty guidance counsellors were also interviewed. The findings, publicised just over a week ago by the Ministry of Health and Wellness, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Youth, are an eye-opener.

• The current popular substances they identified as being used by their peers were ‘molly’, vaping and edibles.

• The students were able to detail not only the physical features of the drug ‘molly’, but also the varied costs and patterns of use among adolescents, including that it is a blue pill, popular in many of their communities and which is sometimes combined with ‘a spliff’ and smoked.

• They reported, too, the ease of access to vaping products and not only from online platforms, but also through vape shops and from their own peers.

• At the same time, the snapshot revealed a low risk perception among youth of the dangers of vaping, given its ease of availability, odourless vapour and diverse flavours.

• Further, alcohol use – including mixed with molly and gummy bears infused with alcohol – was reported to be prevalent, including during school hours.

Substance use among our children and youths, meanwhile, is complicated by a number of other issues with which they are faced – and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic with which many have struggled to cope.

Mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation are among those issues. There is also the issue of excessive sexualised behaviour; inappropriate social media use and exposure; as well as the influence of popular culture. Also in the mix is scamming or ‘chopping the line’; lack of parental guidance; as well as coping with grief, loss and/or abuse.

The situation facing our youth is, therefore, one that requires urgent, comprehensive and collaborative action, and really a whole-of-society response in order to win this war on drugs in the interest of our youths. As a Ministry of Health & Wellness, we have taken a number of steps designed to help us realise that outcome and will do more in the coming months.

NEXT STEPS

The first order of business was to get the snapshot of the contextual realities of substance use among our young people and to bring this to the public’s attention. The next step is, through the NCDA, to do a comprehensive study of substance use among youths, with the upcoming 2023 National Alcohol and Drug Prevalence Survey. That survey, which is to cost an estimated $16 million, will provide insight into substance use among the general population, aged 12 to 65 years. Also in the mix is the Special 2022 Global School Health Survey.

Other planned next steps include the updating of the School Drug Policy in partnership with the Ministry of Education and Youth, and on which the NCDA has done some preliminary work; and enhancing access to services for substance use, including the NCDA’s helpline, 564-HELP (564-4357).

We are also progressing work on the Tobacco Control Act (2020) to protect our youth and other members of the population from the harmful effects of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke. The nature of tobacco marketing, for example, targets and induces children and youth to use these harmful products. Comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, such as that provided for in the Bill, are therefore a necessary part of efforts to reduce consumption.

There are also plans for renewed and elaborated partnerships for the delivery of mental health services to young people, including through access to help via the Ministry’s Mental Health & Suicide Prevention Helpline, 888 NEW LIFE (888-639-5433); and the U-Matter chat line (by texting the word SUPPORT to U-Report Jamaica at 876-838-4897 on WhatsApp and SMS; and @ureportjamaica on Instagram and Facebook Messenger).

The operation of these helplines has never been more important, given what we see from the NCDA snapshot, which implies a normalising of drug use among our young people matched against a low-risk perception which bodes ill for their mental wellness and overall life chances.

It is for this reason that also forming a part of the planned next steps is the rollout of a public education and awareness campaign to bring attention to what our children and youths are facing and the resources that are available to them.

This is not a one-man, or even two-ministry job. It requires the whole of society, each stakeholder – public and private, as well as civil society actors – recognising the danger facing our youths and demonstrating the commitment to save them.


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