“My mother would wipe tears with one of her hands while clearing away the evidence of destruction with the other … her son, her only son, was an addict,” lamented my friend Lilly. Often coming home from school, she found it in ruins accompanied by the epitome of her brother’s outburst to obtain money for Phensidyl that lay on the floor -- shattered crockery, smashed furniture, broken glasses, and bottles.
Her brother Samiul was unpredictable. At times, his demonic nature unfolded as he erupted like a volcano, and there were times when he behaved angelically. Lilly’s mother frequently sent him to a rehabilitation centre, but it was not effective. Each time upon getting released from the centre he went back to his former habit a day or two later. Samiul told me that sometimes he even smuggled drugs into the hospital cabin with the help of a ward boy.
Having an addict brings suffering not just to the addicted individual, but to the entire family as well. During my school years, I remember her being lonely, isolated, and distant from her classmates. It has been 10 years that Samiul severed ties with drugs. Nonetheless, the consequences of his addiction are still borne by the family. Lilly aggrieved, commenting on those years: “Those 10 years of his companionship with drugs still make us suffer.” Lilly’s family paid such exorbitant hospital fees that their wealth quickly depleted. They were then left with little to spend on her higher studies. Luckily, she managed to complete her education with a government scholarship.
Even though Samiul attributed dejection in love as the reason for his addiction, the real reason was much deeper. Lilly’s father was mentally ill and her siblings frequently had to witness marital discord at home. Numerous research on drug addiction suggest that children of mentally ill parents are at a risk of substance abuse, since these children are regularly exposed to domestic conflict. These children, upon growing up, indulge in substance abuse as a coping mechanism that continues into their adulthood.
In addition, these children develop psycho-social problems, perform poor academically, and face difficulties in social conduct. Western countries have specially designed programs supporting children of mentally ill parents. Nonetheless, Bangladesh lags far behind in terms of providing mental treatment -- according to a Dhaka Tribune report, there are only 200 psychiatrists and 50 clinical psychologists in the country. With this being the current state, the implementation of such effective programs seems to be a distant dream.
Intervention from extended families is highly desirable when one parent is mentally ill. However, intervention from extended family has become limited in contemporary Bangladesh, as the country is experiencing a collapse of family ties with a shift towards individualistic culture. This shift in the dynamics is creating a culture of non-intervention on the family matters of extended families, especially in urban Dhaka. When Lilly pleaded for help, assistance was not provided from her extended family into curing her father or brother; rather, the relatives exploited the situation for themselves.
On sharing experiences of treating drug patients, Dr Shaila Parveen, a doctor of Genome Health Services and Research Centre, said: “Even though there are many factors for substance abuse, family conflict is the driving force.” Dr Parveen further mentioned lack of social help as a reason for heightened addiction amongst the youth. In this regard, she recalled the story of a Dhaka University student who became a meth addict since he could not arrange the fees for his final year Honours examination.
Samiul’s case reveals the sufferings of a family caused by drug addiction driven by mental illness. It also shows that, despite being in a predicament, individual members of a family are reluctant to approach mental health professionals for fear of it impacting their social standing.
The mental illness of Lilly’s father was left untreated. Despite the deplorable state of mental health treatment in our country, the government has taken very little initiative in addressing this issue. The insignificant budget allocation for the mental health sector is its mere reflection.
In order to curb addiction, the government must focus on helping mentally ill individuals as well as their family members living in the same household. Particular focus must be placed on children with mentally ill parents, since children are the most vulnerable group. Samiul’s addiction, for example, was escalated by some of the actions of his father. His father hired two autorickshaw drivers who would sell Samiul four to five bottles of Phensidyl every day. This unfortunate occurrence highlights the significance of the psychological well being of parents.
To strengthen the mental health sector, the government must provide incentives to bring back Bangladeshi clinical psychologists and psychiatrists residing abroad. Since it is essential for psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to speak Bengali, only Bengali-speaking mental health professionals could be targeted. Long-term government strategies may include strengthening the psychology departments in the public and private universities through forming partnerships with foreign universities.
Once the dearth of mental health professionals is resolved, counseling must be made compulsory at all schools, colleges, universities as well at all private and public offices. Psychiatric counseling will recognise individuals at risk, and prevent vulnerable individuals from substance abuse through appropriate counseling.
In addition to improving the conditions of mental health care in our country, the government needs administrative efficiency to curb drug addiction. There are evidences of the ineffectiveness of the security forces in obstructing the supply of drugs. On my field-trip to Rajshahi two months ago, a local journalist from Chapai Nawabganj said that the police were reluctant to impose strict restrictions on the illegal drug trade since they profit from the illegal traders.
Drug addiction among the youth arises from multiple factors, therefore measures to curb drug addiction should also be equally multifaceted. Also, psychological counseling must be made widely available through cellphone apps and free mobile services. Above all, there is a greater need to restrict supply of abusive drugs through exercising strong political will and administrative efficiency.
Names have been changed to protect their identity.