Drug addiction a health problem, not just legal

Having a new cohort of counsellors who understand the complexities of addiction drug addiction should improve Samoa’s response to a growing problem, the psychiatric registrar and head of the Mental Health Unit at Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital said.

Tuifagatoa Dr George Leao Tuitama has just completed eight Universal Training Curriculum courses in basic counselling skills for addiction professionals, and sat the international certified addiction professional examination last week. 

Substance abuse disorders are classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as mental health disorders. Samoan people afflicted with the disease ideally find themselves in the care of Tuifagatoa and his team in the hospital mental health unit.

“This was a good opportunity for some of our staff who needs to take in some of the basic skills and techniques in dealing with substance use disorders,” he said.

A growing problem is that of methamphetamine use. Tuifagatoa said it is a highly addictive substance, and one that frequently leads to a drug induced psychosis, which has to be treated into order to make counselling effective.

“The main treatment is abstinence, we have to get them off it,” he said.

“What we do is restrain them and keep them in our seclusion unit, mainly for their safety and the safety of the people around them, and we wait for the substance to naturally get out of their system.”

Improving nutrition and exercise strengthen the body and help beat the addiction, and counselling only helps.

“Helping counsel them through and get them off of it (the drug); that is the main focus of treatment of any addiction professional.”

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Drug induced psychosis often goes away when a person stays away from drugs, but for some it may develop into a “full blown” mental illness, like schizophrenia, which can be treated with medication.

Each person will be affected by drugs and addiction differently, Tuifagatoa said, and therefore treatment should be contextual to different people.

“I have known some people who have been taking drugs their whole life and they have never had an episode. And I have known someone who only tried it once, and then they got into a really bad state,” he said.

“Everyone is different and I guess that’s the message here. 

“There is a general way of dealing with it but to really deal with it successfully it depends on the context and on the person.”

An effective medical intervention helps, but so does treating a person socially and spiritually with the support of their families and communities.

“That’s their recovery capital,” Tuifagatoa said.

“If the people around them are not too supportive, and what we call enablers… 

“Well you can quit drinking but if the people you are hanging around with are drinkers the chances are that you’re going to start drinking again.”

Tuifagatoa said he was pleased to see more people invested in learning how to treat addiction as the disease that it is.

There will always be people who will always want to do drugs, and so prevention activities only go so far, he said.

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