According to the World Health Organisation, the use of alcohol and other drugs has long been recognised as a major health and social problem in South Africa.

Several studies, including research by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Southern Africa in collaboration with the Provincial Government of the Western Cape, has shown that substance abuse among youth is widespread, with the onset of the problem amongst children as young as 12 years of age.

From which age should children be educated?
It is never too early to start educating children on the dangers of substance use. Education has powerful effects when applied early when development is most easily shaped, and the child’s life is most easily set on a positive course.

While some degree of risk-taking among adolescents can be expected and may seem harmless, experimenting with drugs and alcohol can have serious negative consequences that can permanently harm a child’s memory, cognitive functioning, motivation, and control.

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Many young people are oblivious to these risks. However, substance abuse is one of the leading causes of crime and contributes to poverty, dysfunctional families and communities, the burden of disease, injury, and premature death.

Prevention strategies
According to the UNODC standards, the goal of prevention strategies is to avoid or delay the initiation of psychoactive substances, or, if they have already initiated use, to avert the development of substance use disorders.

Drug education enables children and the youth to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to appreciate the benefits of living healthily and promote responsibility towards drug use. This type of education calls for a systemic approach.

The role of parents
As role models for children, a parent’s view on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs can strongly influence how they think about them. Parents are advised to talk to their children about drugs as part of general health and safety conversations. Explain what drugs are, their functions, and which drugs are harmful or illegal.

It is essential to stick to the facts. Do not make drugs sound glamorous or fun, and do not over exaggerate the harms. Always consider what age-appropriate information for your child is.

Parents of children with addiction problems are encouraged to contact one of the many South African National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependence (SANCA) centres for the most recent information and help.

The role of schools
Schools and teachers who interact with children on a daily basis are well-positioned to identify children with signs and symptoms of substance use disorders. Often, the parent is the last to discover that their child has a problem. Bringing any problematic behaviour or signs of distress to a parent’s attention can help catch substance use disorders before the situation worsens.

Schools are also appropriate settings for prevention education. Educators may find it challenging to relay information about drug abuse to children and adolescents in a meaningful way without enticing them to try drugs.

There are many curricula designed for schools that have been proven to be effective and can be delivered to students in interesting, interactive, and developmentally appropriate ways. Some of these programs focus on enhancing students’ problem-solving skills or aiding them to evaluate the media’s influence in their lives. Other effective programs help improve students’ self-esteem, reduce stress and anxiety, or increase interest in healthy activities.

The role of community
National and international evidence highlights the effectiveness and importance of community engagement in preventing harm from alcohol and other drugs, especially among high-risk populations such as the youth. Fostering a sense of community ownership is key to engagement and participation in community-led programs.

Fostering a sense of community ownership is key to engagement and participation in community-led programs. This collaborative approach acknowledges that gathering resources and knowledge, as well as coordinating with multiple agencies or sectors, are elements for success.

The role of the government
The government’s role is to create an enabling environment to adopt an integrated and holistic approach by bringing together all sectors of society and providing funding for combating substance abuse and its associated social risks to build safer and healthier communities.

The scourge of substance abuse is a real threat to communities’ sustainable livelihoods and has the potential to undermine developmental efforts.

For this reason, the SANCA is hosting an online ADDICTION 2021 Conference on 21 – 23 July . Register now to be part of a holistic solution where practical, evidence-based substance use disorder solutions are relevant to the unique African context.



Jake DeStratis

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