Tackling the rising drug problem in South Africa’s youth

6/20/2018 8:05:00 AM

Tackling the rising drug problem in South Africa’s youth

Article: Tackling the rising drug problem in South Africa’s youth  

South Africa is struggling against the rising tide of drug use, especially among the youth of our country. Recent statistics are hard to come by, however, the latest report from the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (SACENDU) shows that an alarming 21-28% of patients treated for substance abuse in 2016-7 were under the age of 20 years old - and those are merely the figures of people who have undergone treatment, not taking into account the many who never make it to this point. 

An article from last year cites South Africans as among the top 10 narcotics and alcohol abusers in the world, also stating that a previous SACENDU report* said that the average age of experimentation in South Africa is 12 years old. Yes, that means that children start experimenting with drugs and alcohol in primary school, already. 

Though worrying, it makes ones wonder what causes lead children to experiment with drugs, and what the effects that drugs have on their health - both mental and physical, education and future. More importantly, what is being done to curb these disturbing numbers, and potentially put a stop to a practice that is detrimental to the future generations of our country?

Rhys Evans, Director at leading drug and alcohol testing equipment supplier, ALCO-Safe, says that he has seen a marked increase in the number of schools seeking drug testing equipment, since drug testing at schools became legal in 2008. 

“We are increasingly approached by schools to give talks and provide drug testing equipment, for a broad spectrum of narcotics. However, the majority of these schools are private, where funds are less of an issue and parental involvement often pushes for testing to be implemented. 

“At government schools, we have found testing to be considerably lower. This could stem from a number of reasons, including lack of funding, poor education around drug use for educators, scholars and parents alike, and lack of sufficient support around testing methods and rehabilitation,” says Evans. “Unfortunately, it’s often the schools in lower income areas that suffer the highest number of substance abuse.”


Testing aside, the causes for substance abuse seem to be similar across the board, whether private or government school and regardless of income levels. 
Dr Joel Shapiro, Clinical Psychologist at Randburg’s Akeso Crescent Clinic, says that most drug use stems from an underlying emotional problem. 

“The core trigger for drug use is often an emotional one. A sense of alienation, disconnectedness, loneliness and lack of normalcy arises often in the years following puberty,” says Dr. Shapiro. “These can stem from multiple sources, such as an unstable home environment, family worries, a lack of support from social groups or communities, a lack of acceptance among peers - perceived or real, or even a genetic predisposition towards depression.” 

Melissa Bailey**, Deputy Principal at a secondary school in a low income area in Johannesburg (one of the few that conduct random drug testing), says that there may be a link between income and drug use at school, particularly with regards to dealing. 

“Some of our children have been caught in possession of large enough quantities of CAT or other substances to suspect dealing and, often, the likeliest cause is that these kids are trying to supplement their income due to poor financial straits at home,” says Bailey. “Whether to support their families or simply provide themselves with some ‘pocket money’, lack of income seems a likely motive.” 

Bailey says that it’s also about reputation and fear, adding that many of the kids caught in possession of drugs seem to consider it something of a status symbol, and that “they seem terrified to disclose any information about their sources, absolutely refusing to give any more information”. 


Many adult drug abusers, even those that undergo treatment, fail to entirely give up the habit and often relapse, going on to become hard drug users for the rest of their lives and either ending up in jail for drug related crimes, homeless, or in some form of institution. However, there are also many users who are able to rehabilitate, going on to live normal, sober lives. 

At a scholar level, however, the chances for developing full addiction appear incrementally higher, and the effects, further reaching. 

Dr. Shapiro explains that, beyond detracting from learning and impeding a scholars ability to properly function in a school environment, drug abuse can also lead to other psychological problems. 

“Substance abuse in a young adult often leads to tendencies of lying and secrecy, as well as antisocial behaviour beyond their circle of users. Drugs may cause an underlying genetic depression to manifest in a scholar. Overuse of substances like marijuana can lead to toxic psychosis, lack of concentration and even major depression. Marijuana renders a sedative effect, making users passive and often depressed.”

None of these effects are conducive to receiving a useful, worthy education, and Bailey supplements Dr. Shapiro’s words, saying, “We often only test for drugs when a scholar’s behaviour indicates potential drug, or substance, use. We have had students become aggressive with other students, end even teachers. We have also had students who have displayed sunny, happy dispositions and inquisitive minds degenerate into sullen, secretive children with little interaction with others or in class.” 

Evans, with longstanding exposure to the effects of narcotics, says that there are also the usual side effects of drugs to take into account, such as manic behaviour, as well as the fact that drug use often leads to other crimes, such as theft or worse. 

What’s being done

Currently, random testing at school level is legal. However, as Evans pointed out, not many schools at a government level are testing. 

Bailey says, “We conduct random tests, according to the procedures laid out by the Gazette, however it’s not enough. Children who test positive for substances are usually suspended, with the promise of expulsion if they re-offend within 6 months. Typically, though, they re-offend after the 6 month probation is up, or they re-offend before then and we apply for an expulsion with the Department of Education (GDE), as per standard practice and policy.” 

Unfortunately, Bailey adds, the combination of a backlog of similar requests and the GDE’s need to ensure that expulsions are completely necessary means that an expulsion request can take up to 3 or 4 months to be approved. 

“And is expulsion the right way?” questions Bailey. 

“While we do not want these students impacting other learners, what other life or options are there for the children that are expelled? Where do they go? We do our best to give apprehended children support, through encouraging relationships with mentor teachers during community service, and by sending them to SANCA for treatment, but this is not always successful.” 

Rights and responsibilities 

Evans says that drug testing at school is a controversial topic, mostly because there is a lack of knowledge around the rights of the school versus the rights of the learners, and the proper processes to follow to ensure both are protected.

“People between the ages of 12 and 18 are naturally wary of authority, and tests - random or regular - are seen as an infringement on their privacy. Testing needs to be approached with sensitivity to engender a feeling of trust, so that children are encouraged to seek help if they are tested as positive for drug use, or that they do not feel violated if they test negative,” explains Evans. 

The best process to follow, according to Evans, is to begin with raising awareness on drug use and the possible consequences, both as a result of drug use and as a result of a positive test. A policy needs to be outlined around what action to take for a positive test, including rehabilitative measures, support offered, and any disciplinary action. Included in this policy must be a process on parental involvement, as it is important - and legally required - to gain the approval of parents for any treatment Testing policies need to be clearly communicated to learners and parents, along with the reasons for implementing testing. 

Bailey says that, while she agrees with Evans’ outline, it is not always easy or possible. 

“Our school is heavily underfunded. We offer what support we can, but it’s not always possible to provide counselling and most parents are unable to afford rehab. We have an agreement with a local university for their third year psychology students to volunteer help to students requiring counselling. Although the volunteers are not yet qualified, making the treatment questionable, we believe it is better than nothing and at least offers some measure of support to learners.”

Education is key 

Evans, Dr. Shapiro and Bailey all concur that education is key. 

Says Dr. Shapiro, “Schools need to create awareness among children backed by positive reinforcement. Pictures of the effects of drugs, informational pamphlets about alternatives and where to seek help, and leveraging the social media platforms that children use to communicate with children are all effective ways of keeping them informed.”

Bailey says that education needs to be made available to teachers and parents, too. “When we discover a particular drug, we have to do our own research into what it is and its effects. We need access to better resources around current drugs available and how to treat them. Parents are also unaware and need to be taught the signs to look for to spot possible drug use. This will go a long way in possibly stopping drug use before it becomes a serious problem.” 

Evans says that strong communication between schools and parents helps to underpin education and awareness, ensuring that all parties are knowledgeable about what drugs are available, what signs to look out for to spot a potential user and the best, most sensitive way to approach possible users without instilling fear or driving them away. 

“It is clear that drug use in our schools is rising, and the lack of support from communities and government, as well as lack of easy access to treatment facilities, means that we, as a nation, need to take matters into our own hands. Testing is a great way to identify drug problems, however it needs to be supported by a policy on how to address them, through education, awareness, support and a strong collaboration between schools, parents and - yes - the learners,” adds Evans.

“Importantly, the private sector needs to rally together to support these schools by donating drug testing kits.  The more kits are available, the better the school can get an understanding of the extent of the drug abuse.  This results in a win/win situation as many companies are looking at different ways to allocate budget for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, enabling them to find meaningful ways to improve their BEE rating and create a difference in the lives of our youth” 

*link not provided
** name has been changed to protect the identities of individual, school and learners.

Editorial contacts
Rhys Evans
Managing Director
Tel: 012 343 8114
Email: rhys@alcosafe.co.za

Evolution PR
Lee Wanless
Tel: 011 462 0628
Email: lee@evolutionpr.co.za


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