Opinion: Silent epidemic: The devastating impact of drugs on Fiji’s health and wellbeing

Photo: PINA

Fiji faces a critical mental health crisis, with rising drug abuse cases being one of several contributing factors. Social and economic challenges, along with limited access to mental health services, are also believed to play a significant role.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has recently reported that nearly 200 million people are using illicit drugs worldwide. In Fiji, illicit addictive drugs such as methamphetamines (ICE), cocaine, and cannabis have dominated the scene in the media, justice system, social welfare department, and health sector. 

Our hospitals are witnessing a corresponding rise in drug-related mental health issues. The long-term mental health consequences can affect a person’s entire livelihood. These includes their inability to function at work or school, engage in and sustain healthy relationships, and overall be a productive member of society. When trying to quit a drug, drug users often struggle with two issues: drug addiction and drug withdrawal.

Drug addiction occurs when a person, despite being fully aware of the detrimental effects on their health, finances, and relationships, feels compelled physically and psychologically to obtain and use a preferred drug.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders 5 describes the term addiction as interchangeable with dependence. Addiction symptoms can differ among individuals, and they extend beyond a strong belief that drugs will facilitate social interactions and enhance concentration and performance.

It also includes a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, a strong appetite or craving for the drug, and a lot of time spent thinking about how to obtain and use the drug. The severity of addiction will depend on both the duration of use and the number of drugs consumed. Addiction can go as far as stealing money or ‘pawning’ household items to satisfy the cravings for the drug. Regrettably, addiction often transforms the user’s entire personality, causing significant distress for their loved ones.

Drug withdrawal is just as troublesome as addiction and, in severe cases, life-threatening. The symptoms of withdrawal can start within hours after stopping and may last for weeks or even months. The most common symptoms of withdrawal include problems sleeping, unstable mood swings, problems with memory and concentration, depression, anxiety, a lack of energy, an inability to control one’s emotions, poor decision-making, and problems managing stress. These symptoms can intensify when the person is under stress, which then causes huge cravings for the drug to relieve them. This forms the basis for drug addiction and the never-ending cycle of drug abuse, which will require professional intervention to help with drug quitting.

Mental health services in Fiji have come a long way, and drug addiction services are one area that will require comprehensive development. While we are seeing many drug-related mental health problems, it is unfortunate that we are treating them far too late.

This may be a topic for another day; however, more often at this stage, users have developed a primary mental disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, which adds further to the addiction conundrum. Moreover, they would have experienced a decline in essential support systems from their families and places of work, leading to burnout in their relationships. This is why it is important to talk to a professional to help with drug quitting. The earlier treatment is sorted out, the better the overall health and psychological outcomes for the user.

If you are struggling with drug addiction, you can seek help from a health facility near you. The stress management wards of the main divisional hospitals, the Empower Pacific Counselling Services, and private mental health clinics have mental health professionals who can attend to your mental health needs.

Dr Sefanaia Qaloewai is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Mental Health, Child Care and Adult Medicine at the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Fiji National University.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.