Unmasking the silent crisis of substance abuse

The world is becoming more African, and we are experiencing a notable shift towards an increasingly African influence globally in sports, music and entertainment with the growing population. The world grays as Africa blooms with the youth, making the region a huge potential for investment and growth. It is estimated that the population of Africa by 2050 is going to hit 1.6 billion and Nigeria’s role is pivotal as the “Giant of Africa” with its huge population and having one of the largest populations of youth in the world. However, in the vibrant tapestry of Nigeria’s sociocultural landscape, a silent crisis continues to unfold; the pervasive and often overlooked burden of substance abuse. In fact, we underestimate its impact.

Substance abuse, which encompasses the misuse of drugs, alcohol, and other addictive substances, has reached alarming proportions in the country. Consequently, the Nigerian youth are particularly vulnerable to the impact of this menace: the culprit being personal and socio-economic factors such as peer pressure, family issues, unemployment, and limited educational opportunities. These factors contribute to the susceptibility of young individuals to the allure of addictive substances. What was once considered a sporadic issue has evolved into a complex and pervasive challenge and is now affecting individuals across diverse demographics, from the urban centres to rural communities, impinging on the overall quality of life of the population.

This is evident at the individual level where substance abuse inflicts a heavy toll on the people battling with addiction, deteriorating their physical well-being and inflicting on them mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, loss of self-consciousness and even death. Oftentimes, these repercussions stretch beyond the individual; they reverberate through families, straining relationships in the process. In addition, this ripple effect extends to the broader society, contributing to social issues like crime, violence, and the breakdown of social cohesion. This has led to a considerable increase in the number of youths imprisoned in recent years, making drug-related crimes, including trafficking and abuse-driven violence, challenging for law enforcement agencies to deal with.

According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime in Nigeria, 14.4 per cent, representing 14.3 million people aged between 15 and 64 years, abuse drugs. Even though we have a National Drug Policy and National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act which led to the establishment of NDLEA and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, there has been little success in curtailing this menace because policy gaps and enforcement challenges persist. Let’s cast our minds back to some years ago when opioid abuse, especially of cough syrups containing codeine, was widespread throughout the country. Readily available were bottles that could easily be obtained over the counter at pharmacies, local stores and through drug sellers. Of note is when the issue gained public prominence and political domain after the British Broadcasting Corporation aired an investigative documentary about Nigeria’s codeine cough syrup epidemic in April 2018.

This was followed by another investigation by BuzzFeed Inc in May of the same year. This expose prompted the Federal Ministry of Health to impose a ban on the codeine cough syrup importation and production in the country.

Having travelled across the country, visiting 23 states of the federation and covering the six geopolitical zones, I believe a comprehensive and integrated approach is essential in addressing this silent crisis by actively engaging with affected communities. To start with, our institutions of higher learning should introduce to their curriculum courses that address drug and substance abuse to increase awareness of its harmful effects and to discourage use among students.

Second, by engaging in initiatives that promote community involvement, destigmatisation, and awareness, contributions can be made to early intervention and support networks for individuals grappling with addiction. This can be achieved by offering direct support to civil society groups and expanding critical awareness through club activities like the drug-free club which I was part of during my university days. This should be encouraged in many of our secondary and tertiary educational institutions nationwide with an emphasis on leading a healthy lifestyle. Also, the aggressive health promotion and training among the population affected by leveraging the National Youth Service Corps towards a drug-free society is of great importance.

As touching rehabilitation programmes for those addicted, priority investments should be placed on personnel training, provision of mental health facilities, remand homes, correctional facilities and psychiatry hospitals to improve care delivery. We should also adopt the use of technology to improve real-time data collection and case reporting.

Lastly, given the global nature of substance abuse, I believe international support is paramount. Collaborative efforts with our neighbouring countries should be encouraged by sharing best practices and engaging with international organisations to enhance Nigeria’s capacity to tackle the transnational aspects of substance abuse, including trafficking and regional coordination on prevention and rehabilitation strategies. I am certain that through proper implementation and reevaluation, these interventions will be successful and can reduce the impact of these menaces by 25 per cent within the next five years.

Dr Oluwaseyi Atoyebi is a Health Sector Management Fellow at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, United States