Addiction

Drugs On The Rise Among Youth

BY RAYNER TAN AND DANIEL HO

10 December 2021  |   8 min read

Substance use, or drug abuse, has been on the rise among youth in Singapore. Of all arrests for drug-related offences made by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in 2020, 41 per cent were under the age of 30 (CNB annual report).1 First-timers accounted for 75 per cent of these arrests, while the number of repeat arrests among young drug users more than doubled since 2016.

Is the reason for this rise in youth drug use because of our failure to keep drugs out of our borders? Not quite. The CNB and Ministry of Home Affairs have consistently, and successfully dismantled dozens of drug syndicates every year, and have been vigilant in arresting drug users.3

To understand the rise in youth drug use and substance use disorders, we must look beyond the moral and criminal policing of drugs. The science tells us that substance use disorders should not be seen as a moral failing, but part of a mental health ecosystem4.

Youth Drug Use, Mental Health and Adverse Childhood Experiences

While we recognise that drug use may be recreational for some youth, other youth may use drugs to help themselves cope with mental stress or crises. However, even though laws criminalising substance use and possession may not differentiate between these two groups, the narratives underpinning them differ greatly. Those who use drugs in the face of multiple psychosocial stressors, as well as other trauma, are more likely to be diagnosed with substance use disorders5, and in turn may face greater risks of  incarceration due to their use and reliance on illicit substances6,7.

This nuance has implications on our approaches to policies that address demand-reduction and rehabilitation for drug use in Singapore.

Scientific research has shown that drug use among our youth provides us with signs that our children are experiencing a variety of stressors, which include commonly-known factors like academic-related stress and peer influence.

Increasing levels of academic stress have cause more youth to seek out professional mental health support in recent years8, and the pandemic has exacerbated such forms of perennial stress and diminished existing, or already poorly-established, support structures.9 It follows that more youth may possibly turn to substances as a form of escape or coping, especially those who are less privileged or grow up in adverse environments.

Increasing levels of academic stress have caused more youth to seek out professional mental health support in recent years, and the pandemic has exacerbated such forms of perennial stress and diminished existing, or already poorly-established support structures.

We live in an unequal world, and therefore the distribution of factors that predispose individuals to drug use, and for some, substance use disorders and addiction, disproportionately affect some youth more than others. A study on youth delinquency published in 2021 by The National Committee on Prevention, Rehabilitation and Recidivism (Ministry of Social and Family Development) in Singapore found that youth who had experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) were more likely to have reported substance use.

The report highlighted ACEs such as the presence of substance abuse, mental disorders, incarceration and/or violence within the family, parental separation, childhood maltreatment, community violence and bullying. This aligns with the scientific literature globally.10

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention validate these findings11, and additionally point out how family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity contribute to ACEs, which is a form of trauma that is common among clients at The Greenhouse, a substance use recovery centre that we, the authors, serve at.

What Can We Do? A Message for Youth:

It may feel like it, but know that you are not alone in this journey. Sometimes it may look like there is no one who will be able to understand what is going on, and that your circumstances are truly unique to you. However, do know that there are many others who have been through similarly confusing and painful situations; there are people who care for you and will walk with you through these difficult times.

Find support from people you trust. Reach out to your friends or trusted adults for support. These may include people beyond your own families. Sometimes, the adults may not always say the right things – but give them some time to understand what’s going on. They may not perfectly understand what is going on for you, but trust that they care.

It’s never too late to seek help. There are many services available catered specially for you and the difficulties that you are going through. The difficulties may seem insurmountable, but know that you are doing the best you can, and that there will always be help available for you.

A Message for Parents: Fostering Safe and Positive Environments

Build bridges, not walls. Recognise the signs that your child may be engaging in the use of substances. Many online resources are available which highlight certain emotional and behavioral changes that have been found to be indicative of substance use.12

While many of these warning signs may pass off as typical or ‘normal’ behaviours that characterise adolescent years and growing up, having a conversation with your child about such changes may help clarify this. Avoiding giving lectures and scare tactics as these have proven to be ineffective in preventing drug use, and may create further barriers to honest conversations between you and your child.13

Fostering a safe environment at home and beyond. Ensuring that your child has access to support structures within and beyond the family, including a safe home environment, connectedness to school programmes and peers, as well as professional support, if needed, are protective against substance use. We can play a part in not just fostering such environments, but also ensuring that our children have the tools and community support to thrive in the face of adversity.

Conscious parenting. In our experiences with clients at The Greenhouse, we know that good intentions from loved ones, and trauma, can co-exist. While it is sometimes not the case, unhealthy communication patterns within the family may serve to exacerbate or perpetuate the client’s ongoing  challenges. This may often be difficult to recognise or be made aware of. As you embark on the process of looking out for professional help and support for yourself or your child, we also recommend looking within. We as parents must have the courage to reflect on our family dynamics, and how our own behaviour or expectations may reflect traumas that we have been through ourselves. Proactively addressing conflicts at home in an open and validating manner, or helping your child deal with adverse environments outside of the home, may be necessary.

Resources

  • Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT) – Website: www.chat.mentalhealth.sg
  • Institute of Mental Health (IMH) 24-hour Helpline – Tel: 6389 2222
  • National Addictions Management Service (NAMS) – Tel: 6732 6837
  • National Care Hotline – Tel: 1800-202-6868
  • Narcotics Anonymous Singapore – Tel: 8405 8432
  • mindline.sg (chatbot and compendium of customised local mental health resources) – Website: www.mindline.sg
  • The Greenhouse Community Services Limited (a substance addiction recovery centre for marginalised communities) – Visit https://thegreenhouse.sg/our-centre

Rayner Tan is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina Project-China, and a visiting research fellow at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore, as well as the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, Singapore.

Daniel Ho is a clinical psychologist at a local healthcare institution and has experience working with stigmatised minorities and at-risk youth populations in the local context.

Rayner is a director, and Daniel is a volunteer clinician at The Greenhouse Community Services Limited, a registered charity that works with people from vulnerable and marginalised communities in their journey to recovery. The centre practices evidence-based and trauma-informed approaches in recovery from addiction.

This commentary reflects the authors’ personal opinion and does not reflect those of any organisation(s) that they are affiliated to.


1https://www.cnb.gov.sg/NewsAndEvents/News/Index/cnb-annual-statistics-2020

2https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/more-youth-involved-in-drug-abuse-and-sexual-offences-even-as-juvenile-crime-rate-falls-43

3https://www.mof.gov.sg/docs/librariesprovider3/budget2021/download/pdf/revenue-and-expenditure-estimates-for-fy2021-2022.pdf

4https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/06/cover-opioids-stigma

5https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/substance-use/index.htm

6Luciano, A., Belstock, J., Malmberg, P., McHugo, G. J., Drake, R. E., Xie, H., Essock, S. M. & Covell, N. H. (2014). Predictors of incarceration among urban adults with co-occurring severe mental illness and a substance use disorder. Psychiatric Services, 65(11), 1325-1331.

7Fazel, S., Yoon, I. A., & Hayes, A. J. (2017). Substance use disorders in prisoners: an updated systematic review and meta‐regression analysis in recently incarcerated men and women. Addiction, 112(10), 1725-1739.

8https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/more-teens-in-singapore-seeking-help-for-school-stress-at-imh

9https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/big-read-students-silent-cry-help-covid-19-fallout-erodes-parental-and-peer-support-some

10https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763992/

11https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/substance-use/index.htm

12https://youth.gov/youth-topics/substance-abuse/warning-signs-adolescent-substance-abuse

13https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/33959/1/Drugnet_Ireland_76.pdf