Hooked, high, and looking for help

SINGAPORE - There has been a sharp rise in the number of people seeking help for addiction, especially to alcohol and gambling, in recent years.

New outpatient cases at the Institute of Mental Health's (IMH's) National Addiction Management Service jumped by 55 per cent to 1,419 over the past year from three years earlier.

Including repeat cases, the numbers crossed 2,500, for the first time. A decade ago, only around 200 new patients sought outpatient treatment for addictions at IMH.

The sharpest rise was for those with alcohol addiction, up by close to 75 per cent over three years, followed by gambling addiction at close to 65 per cent.

There were 418 new alcohol addicts and 356 new gambling addicts seeking help.

Overall, drug addiction remained the No.1 problem, though new cases rose by around 30 per cent. As a proportion of new cases, drug addiction cases fell to 37 per cent, whereas alcohol and gambling cases rose to 29 and 25 per cent respectively. Behavioural issues such as cyber and sex addiction made up the rest.

The IMH centre, the largest for addictions here, records statistics by its financial year, which runs from April to March.

Its clinical director, Associate Professor Wong Kim Eng, said the jump in those seeking help could reflect greater public awareness.

Psychiatrists and counsellors said some seek help after crises that leave them desperate, suicidal or ill. Others turn up when their families can no longer tolerate their habits, or they are referred by community groups, polyclinics or the police.

The Government pumped substantial resources into the IMH centre around 2010, when the two casinos opened here. Since then, it has run programmes to educate community groups, health-care professionals and the public on addiction, the importance of early detection and the help available.

Prof Wong said it is also training staff at family service centres, polyclinics, companies and schools to spot those at risk, give immediate help to less severe cases, or make referrals to IMH.

The numbers may well be the tip of the iceberg, as studies have estimated there could be more than 23,000 people with an alcohol problem - including 8,500 potential addicts - and 75,000 problem gamblers or addicts.

The profile of those seeking help at IMH has remained unchanged regardless of the type of addiction. Most are male, with at least secondary-level education.

Drug addicts tend to be single, jobless and began using drugs in their early 20s.

Around half of those with alcohol addiction are married, close to six in 10 work and most started drinking in their late teens.

Most gambling addicts are married working men who live with their families and started gambling in their early 20s.

Prof Wong said addiction is a chronic disease, with frequent relapses, but recovery is possible if patients stick with treatment programmes.

In a study of alcohol disorder patients, the centre found that nearly 70 per cent were able to either reduce drinking or abstain within three months of treatment.

Addictions expert Munidasa Winslow said the increase in bars and clubs, especially in the city, coupled with rising incomes and work stress may have led more to drink.

"It starts with wanting to let off steam and then they lose control," he said. Up to 30 per cent of those he sees at his clinic for alcohol addiction are women.

The One Hope Centre, which counsels gambling addicts, has seen men who lost all their savings and even their homes because of their habits.

Mr Chan Boon Huat, its head of programmes and volunteer management, said the path to recovery is tough and includes helping addicts to pay off their debts.

"It's a long, slow process and can take years, but it can be done," he said.

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