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This Is What We Get Wrong About Drug Addiction: From A Recovering ‘Addict’

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Submitted anonymously:

The recent controversy over Udta Punjab has left many thinking about the rampant use of drugs by the youth in our country. The internet is abuzz with conversations about how easy it is to access illegal drugs, the lack of correctional and rehabilitation services and, state and central government’s disinterest in addressing the problem.

As a recovering ‘addict’, I find that our current approach is often limited to only preventive care. The focus still remains on what constitutes as illegal drugs and our government’s inability to control the mass production and distribution of these ‘illegal’ substances. If we look at the distress caused by drug and alcohol addiction, and the growing crime rate due to its illegal production and distribution, sure, these discussions become important. But we need to go deeper and understand the cultural causes that lead to initiation into substance abuse. We need to question if addiction is a ‘disease’ at all.

According to reports, 63.6% patients coming in for treatment were introduced to drugs at a young age – below 15 years. In India, 13.1% people using drugs and alcohol are below the age of 20 years. In absence of other drugs, children end up using easily accessible substances such as cough syrups, pain relief, glue, paints and cleaning fluids. However, prevention of drug abuse cannot be limited to hindering people from getting hooked onto drugs. It isn’t about the substance involved or it’s legal status. It’s about why someone chooses to become dependent on a substance. Changing cultural values, economic stress and lack of supportive relationships have left young people vulnerable to deal with strains and stresses of their modern lives. While the focus for a long time has been on behavioural prevention rather than correctional prevention, our approach has been to directly influence people’s behaviour rather than to change the conditions and structures that affect their lives.

Access to mental health services and de-addiction centres is limited and while it’s important for us to hold our government accountable for not caring, it is also necessary for us, as a society, to think about how we, too, are enabling dependency on drugs. People consume drugs for multiple reasons and there aren’t enough safe spaces for them to talk about their desire to use drugs.

Telling your friends and family about your addiction isn’t an option. In a country where we choose to remain silent about issues of violence and abuse, where talking about gender and sexuality is frowned upon, it is not surprising that children and young people often see substance use as a form of an escape. And I don’t think, as a society, we are ready to listen to these reasons or cope with what comes with it. Everyone has issues, some people cope with them in a healthier, socially acceptable way, while some of us, choose addiction to get through our daily lives.

chemical drugs
For representation only. Pal Pillai/Getty

When I began using illegal chemical drugs, it was only occasional, once in a few months. But then, one day, it just took over. Soon I started consuming it more often than I thought I would. It didn’t take much time for my psychological and physical dependency to surface. And the only way to contain my dependency was to cut off myself from all the possible sources I could procure drugs from. Few years later, I had a relapse, and it was worse. And the only reason I decided to alter my ways was when a health professional was not interested in my habits but the reason why I want to escape. And within a few days, something changed. Rather than feeling scared, I felt more confident about rerouting my desires and I became more patient with myself. I realised that my addiction isn’t a disease and that the process of rehabilitation is a long one that would require me to reinterpret my emotional state.

What we need is diversified and personalised treatment that targets the health and social needs of the particular individual. And while we advocate and lobby for high-quality treatment, we need to prevent drug users from being marginalised, and instead promote their health and well-being. In India, for far too long, the focus has been on stopping addicts from using drugs completely rather then reducing the use of drugs and its negative consequences for users.

In 1994, Switzerland introduced ‘Heroin Clinics’, a safe environment where heavily addicted, long-term drug users receive the Heroin-Assisted Treatment (HAT). Currently, 1300 people are registered in different centres across Switzerland, where they go to be prescribed and inject heroin. There is a strict code that is followed before a heroin prescription is given to a patient – they should have a full-time job, give up their driving license and should have been on the conventional treatment at least twice. There has been a reported 60% drop in felony crimes by patients and 82% decline in patients selling heroin. Moreover, new infections of HIV have been reduced for patients in the program. Also, this is not the primary form of treatment that is available; the government offers treatment-on-demand. Of about 22,000-24,000 addicts, 16,500 are in treatment and 92% are given daily doses of methadone at conventional clinics.

The sharing of used injecting equipment also makes people who inject drugs particularly vulnerable to HIV and hepatitis C. It is estimated that an average of 13.1% of the total number of people who inject drugs are living with HIV. Globally, the number of men who have sex with men and who are also injecting drug users are growing, which has led to an increase in the number of people living with HIV. With regressive laws like Section 377 and lack of specialised sexual health clinics, the problem only continues to aggravate.

The fact remains that the people will continue to find psychoactive substances to influence their emotional state; new drugs will infiltrate the market and therefore it becomes important for us to adopt strategies that provide necessary help to reduce drug use and the socio-economic impact it has, both on the user and the people that surround them. Our aim should be to reduce the physical, mental, economic and social harm for both the user and the people close to them. There is a need for trans-cultural work to break socio-cultural barriers. We need to listen to various target groups and understand how cross-sectoral collaboration can help us develop a more rational approach to the problem.

We need to stop judging people who use drugs and also, using their stories to create fear and unrest amongst the others. At the end of the day, it’s just a substance and there are reasons as to why some of us get addicted to it. We need to shift our perspective, and discuss addiction as a whole, including consumption of other legal psychoactive substances.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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