ABU DHABI // Parents are being urged to be aware of the warning signs that their child might be experimenting with drugs, to help stem a rise in the number of young addicts.
Experts said children smoking cannabis or taking prescription pills could move on to harder drugs, such as heroin, if their habits were not caught and treated at an early stage.
“Parents are the cornerstone in preventing drug addiction among the young,” said Dr Ali Al Marzooqi, the director of the public health and research department at the National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC).
“Without parents and their proper care, the problem will continue to be there among our children.
“If a child starts using drugs without the parents noticing, then this child will be a chronic problem in the future.”
There are several red flags that parents should be looking out for, Dr Al Marzooqi said on Sunday on the sidelines of a training workshop for drug-addiction professionals from countries across the region, including the UAE, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, Oman and Qatar.
“There is a change in the behaviour of their children,” he said. “For example, they might be asking for extra money, they might be trying to steal some goods in the house.
“Physical signs could include some deterioration in their health, their appetite might change, there could be a problem with concentration and there might be poorer educational performance.
“Usually the parent knows if their child is behaving normally and they have to take action on these abnormal signs at early stages.”
Dr Al Marzooqi said NRC studies of drug addicts found that many had started experimenting with drugs at a young age without their parents noticing.
“We have done some studies which show that, for most of these drug-addict patients, their main problem was their parents were not taking good care of them,” he said.
“Their parents were not guiding them properly and failed to identify early signs of drug addiction among the children. Ultimately, this leads people at the age of 13 to 15 to start using these substances.”
Elizabeth Saenz, a project coordinator at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, agreed that children who experimented with soft drugs often move on to harder, more addictive substances unless someone intervenes.
“Most drug users start with a lighter drug, such as marijuana, and they mix with pills and they take some alcohol,” she said.
“But then the problem really starts when people start injecting themselves.
“Typically, opiates such as heroin is the main injecting drug and, of course, this has tremendous implications, such as HIV and other blood-borne infections such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C.”
Parents have many tools at their disposal to help prevent drug abuse, she said.
“Understand your children. Talk to them,” she said. “Having dinner with your children is one of the most effective prevention measures. Devote time to them and even talk to them openly about the risks of drugs. Create an environment in which children do not feel threatened or abused.”
Ms Saenz said drug-addiction treatment needed to be integrated in the mainstream healthcare system to help remove the stigma of those hooked on illegal substances, regardless of age.
Residential treatment centres are too detached from society, she said.
“The main problem for drug addicts is this stigma and discrimination and those that think these people do not deserve what any other sick person deserves,” Ms Saenz said.
“Chronic in nature and relapsing in nature, drug addiction is like diabetes – there is no cure, just treatment. It causes changes in the brain and changes in the behaviour and these changes can be lifelong. It is a chronic process that involves a lifelong process with a trained health team.”
Dr Al Marzooqi also encouraged the wider community to not turn a blind eye to those with drug addictions.
“We look at drug addicts as patients,” he said. “They should have the availability of treatment as other patients have, such as diabetic patients and hypertension patients.
“They should not be stigmatised nor denied any treatment just because they are drug addicts.”
He added that parents should not fear reprisals for their child if they come forward seeking help.
“We encourage these parents to contact the NRC. We treat all the queries and questions from parents in a confidential way.”