Glue's a sticky problem among youth

Looking dazed, he took a whiff out of a plastic bag filled with a thick gooey substance, then fell back to his seat.

Someone spotted him looking unsteady at the playground next to Block 667, Hougang Avenue 9, and alerted the police. The glue-sniffer is only 11.

On Aug 11 at 9.30pm, police found the boy seated alone and took him in. He was so high, he swayed as he walked with the officers to the patrol car.

His case is now being handled by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).

More than 20 years back, glue-sniffers were a common sight in the heartlands.

In 1987, more than 1,000 people were arrested for inhalant abuse.

A series of measures were introduced to arrest the problem.

For one, those selling glue and thinner had to register the particulars of customers.

Fast forward to present time and it appears the rule may have been forgotten.

The problem is back, and children as young as 10 are now inhalant abusers.

And it's not just a boy thing. Girls are experimenting with this dangerous habit too.

Statistics released by the CNB on Aug 16 show that while the number of arrests made has dropped, it is the age of those caught that is worrying.

Of the 60 people arrested in the first half of this year for inhalant abuse, 24 are in their teens.

The youngest person was just 13 years old.

But Ms Jayanthi Manohar, a counsellor at the National Addictions Management Service, said she has handled even younger abusers.

Last year, she saw a 10-year-old boy whose glue-sniffing experience was kick-started by peer pressure from older children.

She said: "In fact, he did not even like the effects of glue-sniffing, but continued doing so nonetheless, so that he could remain part of the group."

Psychiatrist Thomas Lee, 38, saw two 11-year-old girls for glue-sniffing two years ago.

Dr Lee, who was chief of the Addiction Medicine Department at the Institute of Mental Health before going into private practice, recalled: "I was quite taken aback when these two girls came in, one after the other.

"They were only in Primary 5 and they were already doing it."

The girls were brought in by their school counsellor.

While Dr Lee cannot recall how the school found out, he remembers the girls blaming each other for the bad influence.

"They were quite terrified," he said.

"It's definitely a concern that children can get it quite easily anywhere. The young abusers can say they are buying it for their dad. Who will question a kid?"

At Teen Challenge, the youngest client caught for glue-sniffing is 14.

A spokesman said that now, more people are abusing inhalants.

Psychiatrist Brian Yeo, who deals with addictions, said: "They may like doing it because they think nothing happens to them the next day. Inhaling the toxic fumes gives them a transient high that gives them situational or stress relief.

"It works faster and is cheaper than drugs."

It's not just the price. A can of glue bought from a hardware store costs about S$4.

And unlike drugs, few will ask questions when you need a can of glue. Hence its popularity with the young.

"It's usually young people who abuse inhalants as it gives a cheap and quick fix. Plus, it's easily available," said Dr Yeo.

Signs of lethargy

Abusers exhibit signs of lethargy, perhaps the odd stain of glue and a stench of toxic vapour.

But it is what is happening inside their bodies that is the problem.

Said Dr Lee: "The most worrying thing is brain damage. They also face organ damage, hallucination, and sudden death.

"I've seen adults who, after years of inhalant abuse, become mentally impaired. It can be thatbad."

But Dr Yeo said although fewer people are being arrested for inhalant abuse, it may not mean that the problem is going away.

"I have a feeling the actual number of abusers is higher. It could be a hidden, underlying issue."

Dr Yeo pointed out that besides common inhalants like glue and thinner, abusers may turn to smaller and less conspicuous items like lighter fluid and marker pens.

Dr Lee said most of such abusers are from dysfunctional families. He has not noticed any trend in the family's financial status.

He said: "It's usually those whose families aren't stable. They have deteriorating academic results, and usually have peers who are also glue-sniffers."

Added Dr Lee: "For the minority, it's most probably from bad peer influence who introduce it to them when they have stress, maybe from school work.

"They have good parents, just bad peer influence."

aphua@sph.com.sg

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