Substance Abuse

Substance abuse

”The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it is connection.”  Johann Hari

Substance abuse in South Africa is twice the world norm. Statistics supplied Dr Antoinette Basson of the Youth Research Unit at UNISA in 2017 found that 60% of substance abusers in the Western Cape are younger than 20 years old.

Drugs in schools is serious business. The Western Cape Education Department recently raised the alarm bells after drug testing of students during the first half of 2017 revealed truly worrying results. ACCSA Addiction Education College gave the following results in an article October 9, 2017:

  • 66.7% of Western Cape school kids tested for drugs, tested positive.
  • A total of 360 primary school learners from 36 schools were tested, 229 tested positive.
  • 605 high school learners from 17 school were tested, 415 tested positive.
  • Tests were only conducted on learners who had been previously suspected of drug usage.
  • There are approximately 9 million addicts in South Africa.
  • 2 million people in South Africa are problem drinkers.


The crippling damage drugs cause to the brain has remained unseen – until recently. SPECT stands for single photon emission computerized tomography, a method for imaging the activity of the brain. It shows areas of activity and inactivity. The “holes” in the brain are actually areas that are inactivated by the use of a drug or the practice of some behavior. Abstinence will restore much but not all of the brain function. The more chronic the use, the less restoration of activity.

  • sleeplessness
  • loss of appetite or ”munchies”
  • weight loss
  • dilated or constricted pupils
  • blood shot eyes
  • dry mouth, disorientation
  • aggressive behaviour
  • mood swings
  • listlessness
  • secretiveness
  • skin lesions
  • nausea and vomiting
  •  hangovers
  • blackouts
  • hallucinations

Why are kids so easily persuaded to start using?

Children and teens tend to make decisions with the Limbic brain, also called the emotional brain. This part of the brain is responsible for emotions, feelings, and instinct.  The emotional brain is often seen as responsible for a great deal of the response to stress, acting mostly on instinct instead of logic.

In teens and children the emotional brain is developed long before the pre-frontal  lobes. The prefrontal lobes or Neo-cortex is the area of the brain responsible for problem solving, conscious thought, and language. The pre-frontal lobes are only fully develop by age 25 years. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. This is usually the time a young person starts to realize they have a problem quitting drugs. Teens and children do not have the capacity yet to think analytically.

A teen’s desire to be liked, accepted and fit in originates in the emotional brain.  They process most information with the emotional brain. This makes them a target for drug dealers.  They make decisions based on emotions, without considering the long term consequences – just because it feels right. Later they struggle to explain what they were thinking.Truth is they weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.

A child who comes from a home where their basic needs are not met, are more prone to start using drugs as a coping or soothing mechanism. In fact, scientists discovered that for each traumatic incident that happened to a child, they were 2-4 times more likely to grow up to be an addicted adult.

What causes addiction? Easy, right? Drugs cause addiction. But maybe it is not that simple.

Who are more likely to start using drugs

A person is more susceptible to start using drugs if they

  • live in a chaotic home environment,
  • have ineffective parents,
  • are neglected,
  • are inappropriately aggressive,
  • shy,
  • poor school performers,
  • or part of a deviant group among whom drug use is approved.

Hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviors. Gabor Maté

  • Declining grades
  • Dropping out of activities
  • Use of deodorizers or incense
  • Disappearance of valuables and money
  • Lying/ hiding things
  • Running into trouble at school/ law
  • Secretive about friends/ possessions & activities
  • Demanding more privacy
  • New interest in friends or fads
  • Use of eye drops

Get help

Confronting a child about possible drug use is a conversation that no parent wants to have. Please note that ”Some addicts never recognise the harm their behaviors cause and never form resolutions to end them. ” says Gabor Maté. Here’s what to do if your child is using drugs.

Stay calm at all cost

Substance abuse affects families – never only the addict.  Addressing a serious drug or alcohol abuse issue within the family puts parents to the test as much as anything ever will. But it’s important that, above all else, you remain calm. If you suspect there’s an underlying substance abuse issue with your teen, it’s not the end of the world. No matter what, this is still your child; how you react can mean all the difference in their recovery.

  • Respond with love.
  • Don’t blame yourself.
  • Determine what needs to be done.
  • You are not alone.

Talk to your child

  • When you decide to start talking to your children about drugs, remember that there’s a huge difference between confronting addiction versus having a conversation about it. Avoid confrontations at all costs.
  • Maybe the best approach to getting a teenager to open up about the topic is to ask them about their friends. By finding out what they think about friends who are using or getting in trouble for using, you may gain insight into how they feel about the topic.
  • Just always keep lines of communication open so that it’s constantly reinforced that you’re someone they can trust and come to with anything they’re going through.
  • Talk to your kid about their choices The subject matter is extremely delicate, and teenagers with a substance habit are already in a fragile state. Don’t assume you know everything that they’re going through and struggling with. It’s okay that you don’t inherently “get them.”
  • Don’t act on pure emotion. Don’t judge them. But understand that where the conversation goes will likely determine your next steps.
  • If a person denies addiction – one question to ask is: ”Given the harm you are doing to yourself and others – are you willing to stop. If not, you are addicted.”

Be observant

Your teenager goes through changes that are a normal part of adolescence. But some changes are windows into more sinister things — like experimentation with drugs or alcohol.

  • Take note of obvious changes to their behavior, appearance and overall health.
  • Be aware of the major signs of substance abuse. Look for alcohol or drug paraphernalia (physical evidence) in their room, their laundry, their school supplies or around the house.
  • Some teens are better than others at keeping their habits a secret and covering up their symptoms. It’s up to you to be diligent in your observations, without jumping to many conclusions.

It’s ok to get in professional help

You’re not a superhero. Nobody expects you to be. As signs start to build, reach out for help in the matter. Assuming you can help your teenager by yourself can be overwhelming in situations like these, and can set you — and more importantly, your teen — up for failure. Realize you are not alone, and the challenges ahead can start to appear more and more conquerable.

Help can be in the form of:

  • Immediate family
  • Family friends
  • Your child’s friends
  • Teachers or school counselors
  • Doctors
  • Intervention specialists

Building a support network will help you keep a level head, get various perspectives on the situation and make the best decision for moving forward.

Be carefull of drug enabling

Enabling means ”to make it possible to do something”.

Often, parents of teens wrapped up in substance abuse slip into enabling. This is when the detrimental behavior is implicitly accepted and allowed to continue because a parent is in denial of the circumstances their teen finds themselves in. What does enabling look like?

  • Ignoring the addict’s negative or potentially dangerous behavior
  • Difficulty expressing emotions
  • Prioritizing the addict’s needs before her own
  • Acting out of fear
  • Lying to others to cover the addict’s behavior
  • Blaming people or situations other than the addict
  • Resenting the addict

Does my child need professional help?

  • If you notice signs of substance use in your teen, contact a professional right away. The longer that substance abuse is allowed to take place, the more difficult it becomes for your teen to kick the habit.
  • Your family doctor can screen your child and determine whether they’re simply experimenting or a suffering from a substance use disorder.
  • Teens with mild substance issues can often recover through outpatient treatment, but deeply-rooted substance use disorders usually require inpatient rehab treatment.
  • When you’re considering which treatment option would be best, be sure to talk to a professional who is well-versed in addiction recovery. Take the first step towards recovery for your child. This call could change the course of your teen’s life. Don’t wait.


You can do a self-test quiz on addiction: Substance Abuse Quiz.


You can chat to a facilitator if you need more help. The Live Chat helpline is a text-based chat. You may remain anonymous. Click on LIVE CHAT.


Understanding the teen brain.

Lost Connections. Johann Hari. 2018

In the realm of Hungry Ghosts. Dr Gabor Maté. 2018

Chasing the scream. The first and last days of the war on drugs. Johann Hari. 2015


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