‘Better late than never’

STEVE Ashley, president of the Association of Friends and Families of Substance Abusers (AFAFOSA), while rapping successive governments for discounting the link between drug abuse and the country’s crime problem, says he welcomes plans by the health ministry to incorporate drug screening and treatment into the mental health system.

“We believe that it is a very good move, very late in coming, it should have happened many years ago, but better late than never. We look forward to it being actuated because the Government makes these statements all the time and nothing happens but hopefully this time will be different,” Ashley told the Jamaica Observer on Wednesday.

The association head, who said the move is one the entity has been “advocating for a long time”, said it is an important step in disrupting one of the most toxic relationships now impacting the country.

“They fail to understand that the crime situation is directly related in many cases to drug abuse and if we could get that settled somehow, we would reduce crime in this country, but I don’t think the Government really understands that. Hopefully they are getting the message now and it will happen.”

Pointing out that drug use is now a ‘major problem, especially for the young children in the schools’, Ashley said “it has gotten out of control now and nobody seems to think that drug abuse is a major problem; they discard it as just criminal activity but it’s an illness and something we have to treat as an illness and not just a criminal activity.”

The AFAFOSA president is in the meantime harshly critical of authority figures who he believes are enablers for the trafficking of illegal substances into the island.

“In terms of the marijuana or ganja that is something that is produced here, the terrible ones like cocaine and so on come in en route to the United States, and everybody else knows except the security forces. I am having a problem with that, and I think part of the problem is the security forces themselves, maybe being part of the whole process. So, I don’t know how we are going to deal with that because the people who are supposed to stop it are the people who are involved in it, so what do you do? It is a very serious problem,” Ashley charged.

“I don’t have an answer for it except that the Government needs to see it as a very serious problem and part of the whole crime situation. If they could start looking at the drug abuse, look at the effects on the kids mostly in the ghettos and the inner-city areas then we realise we could start doing something about the crime,” he said further.

Ashley, in the meantime, said it was AFAFOSA’s hope that the Government will follow its example in building drug counselling centres.

“We built two and handed them over to the Government, we want one in every parish because there are many young people out there under the influence and if you can get them there and start working on them that will go a long way in stopping people from robbing and killing and all the things they are doing,” Ashley said.

He, in the meantime, advocated for more funding for the island’s drug treatment courts which provide for treatment and rehabilitation of persons with drug/substance-abuse problems, under judicial supervision and the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA).

“The drug treatment courts are doing a tremendous job but are underfunded. Quite a number of affected people are brought into the system and have been weaned. It has something to do with the crime, this drug thing. They get on the drugs, and it emboldens them to do criminal activities,” Ashley argued.

“The NCDA is trying but they too are underfunded and what bothers me is that there is funding abroad that they can get but nobody is making the effort. If the Government goes to the EU, they can get millions, but it is not a priority,” he charged.

The NCDA last week told the Observer that strengthening ties with the mental health system would be one of its priorities in the new year.

According to Uki Atkinson, research analyst at the council, “there is a deliberate effort right now to incorporate screening and treatment into the mental health system as the relationship between mental wellness and problematic drug use is very strong”.

“In Bellevue [psychiatric hospital] it is estimated that 80 percent of the patients there are dually diagnosed meaning they have both a mental health disorder as well as a substance use disorder. So, the MOH is working to strengthen the system to incorporate both so that, when you go to a facility or a professional for mental health treatment, that they incorporate drug treatment, at least the screening so we can provide the support services needed for both,” she told the Observer.

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