By the time she turned 18-years-old *Lisakhanya Dzedze had already experimented with CAT, cocaine, and marijuana. She also smoked and drank heavily. Her drug use started at 15 with a puff of weed.
Her story is not unusual. A 2018 study on drug use amongst children in Sub-Saharan Africa found that 22.2-million teenagers between 12–19 drink alcohol. Under 50% of adolescents use at least one psychoactive substance, like cocaine, marijuana, and meth.
Diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, Dzedze reassessed her drug use in 2014 when she was admitted to a mental health facility after a suicide attempt. While there, a psychiatrist warned that her drug use posed a severe risk to her mental health.
“My psychiatrist confirmed that my drug use contributed to how aggressive my bipolar had become at the time.”
She said she started taking drugs for “fun”.
“I didn’t think I was taking them because I was depressed. It was for fun, but when the episodes of depression caused me to sink deeper every time I was not high, it slowly became a problem.”
More school children abusing drugs
A report exploring substance abuse among learners from various high schools found the most common substances were cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol. Factors leading to drug use among children include neglect and a lack of support at home and school.
A SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) councillor based in Tembisa, Thandi Shabalala, said drug use among children is not getting any better.
“The use of drugs by school going children is common in this area. A similar thread in a number of the children’s stories is that they come from broken homes. A number of them are raised by single parents and experience neglect.” said Shabalala.
Dzedze is an example of the impact socio-economic circumstances have on children. Her parents divorced due to her father abusing her mother. Distracted by trying to keep the family fed, Dzedze’s mother did not immediately notice her drug use.
“I think I got away with it for so long because my mother could not accept that a girl like me could also take drugs. She would find bags of cocaine and believe they belonged to one of my brothers.”
Protect children from drug abuse
Child Protection Week, which started on Sunday, highlights the importance of protecting children from gender-based violence, neglect, lack of primary healthcare, education, and the violation of their constitutional rights. A difficult task when drugs are thrown into the mix.
Shabalala said the ease with which children can access drugs is a significant challenge in stopping the problem. She revealed there are areas in the township where adults turn a blind eye to drug use by children.
“Children can buy these drugs from the spaza shops. It is cheap and easy. One drug that has grown popular around Tembisa is crystal meth.”
Another SADAG counsellor, Sbusisiwe Freedom Gana, said crystal meth is also the drug of choice in Dthatoot. A bag of meth goes for as little as R10.
“When I ask these young children where they get the drugs from, some talk about having their dealers, some have access to alcohol because their parents drink, and others are supplied by their peers or adults.”
Substance abuse puts children at risk of dropping out of school, becoming pregnant or becoming infected with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
“They have nothing to do but enter a cycle of a life of drugs and hustling. Whenever I walk around a tavern on a weekday before 12, I see at least one young girl in her school uniform hanging around there and sometimes with men.”
Breaking the cycle
A study by the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use conducted in 2017 showed that alcohol consumption and smoking cannabis are contemporary factors for school absenteeism and dropping out.
Nkateko Magoro, a counselling Psychologist at Pretoria Psychologists, warned that substance use stunts the development of children and damages brain function.
“It has a cyclical effect. When children use substances and alcohol to numb their emotions, they can feel worse off because the high does not take it away.,” she said.
Magoro said substance abuse could cause mental health conditions like bipolar, severe depression, and schizophrenia.
Knowing the signs
“Parents play an important role in making sure that they notice the signs of their children when they start to engage in substance use and alcohol. It is not only the teachers’ job at school. Parents need to check on their children and be active in parenting,” said Shabalala.
She said excessive sleeping or not sleeping enough, isolating themselves, falling grades, and mood swings are signs of drug use among children.
“It is every parent, every teacher, and adult’s responsibility to shield children from drug use and alcohol consumption.”
She urged parents to be alert to what their children do and how they behave. It is also vital to create an environment where children can talk freely about their problems.
“Checking their school bags when they leave and come back from school does help to make sure they are not carrying substances with them,” said Shabalala.
Magoro said parents must be active in their children’s lives and also make it easy for children to talk openly to them.
“In this openness, children can talk about bullying at school, their relationships and friendships. Opening up about the pressures they are experiencing and not shutting them down.”
MEC: Government does have a plan
MEC of Community Safety, Faith Mazibuko, said the government is concerned about increasing substance abuse and alcohol consumption by school children.
“Learners are also targeted by drug lords. Some of them are recruited to sell these drugs within the school. We know that drugs are sold over fences, houses that sell drugs are opposite schools and even spaza shops are selling drugs.”
During the post-budget vote briefing on Monday, Mazibuko said there are several school initiatives aimed at mobilising communities to address this crisis.
One of these is the “Adopt A Cop” programme, under which each school will be assigned a police officer tasked with doing random school bag checks and being a direct line to the school.
“We also have what is known as School Safety Communities in every school. This empowers school teachers and members of the school’s governing body to search learners.”
She said community patrollers, who know the problems children in their communities face and can support them, are deployed to schools. Mazibuko said parents, communities, and the government must work together to protect children against drug use. – Health-e News