Drug counselling: Better Safe than sorry

Family members play a crucial role in helping ex-drug offenders stay clean. But, sometimes, they can end up being part of the problem.

To tackle this, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) launched a two-year pilot programme two months ago which involves counselling not just the drug abuser but also the person's spouse and children from the get-go.

"By holistically addressing their needs, the project hopes to strengthen the resilience of the entire family," NCSS deputy chief executive Tina Hung said about Project Safe, which stands for "Support for recovering Addicts and Families through Empowerment".

Annual statistics released by the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) last month showed that the bulk of inmates are drug offenders and 80 per cent of re-offenders have a drug history. As of the end of last year, 6,510 people were in jail for drug offences, compared to 6,061 in 2011.

Project Safe will involve the NCSS working with SPS to identify 30 offenders for the scheme.

Two voluntary welfare organisations, the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centres (FSCs) and We Care Community Services, will then work with these offenders and their families at critical junctures.

These include three months before a jail term ends, straight after release and six to nine months later.

Relevant agencies, such as the Social Services Offices, Central Narcotics Bureau, National Addictions Management Service, child specialists and counselling centres, will be roped in for their input.

The multi-agency approach shows how seriously the authorities are taking Project Safe, and Ms Hung hopes the pilot will be expanded to include more former drug abusers.

Families will not just learn how to tackle addiction and help the offender reintegrate, but also what not to do.

For instance, they may believe that they are helping by bailing a loved one out of prison and paying off debts used to fund a habit. But this may just embolden the addict, as the person does not have to bear the consequences.

Sometimes, family members also believe that addiction is a simple matter of willpower, and may accuse the addict of not trying hard enough to kick the habit. This may in turn result in feelings of guilt, leading the offender to relapse.

"They think, you have the drug problem, only you need fixing, not me," said Ms Tham Yuen Han, executive director of We Care. "But the reality is family members can be part of the reason why some addicts do not recover."

Project Safe will also address the needs of family members themselves to reduce the chances of inter-generational offending or marriages falling apart.

Couples will be taught financial literacy and get marriage counselling to resolve conflicts that arise from the offender's addiction and incarceration. They will also attend parenting courses to learn to deal with children who may feel neglected.

Kids who struggle to deal with a parent's addiction and time in jail will also get targeted counselling. Picnics and outings will be arranged to give families more opportunities to bond.

"These can help to reduce the chances of children following their parents in turning to drugs to fill the emotional void," said Mr Joseph Chan, who heads Nexus Family Resource Centre under Ang Mo Kio FSCs. The centre provides prison-based support services to offenders and their families.

Singapore After-Care Association (Saca) director Prem Kumar said the pilot scheme plugs a critical gap since many existing help programmes are aimed at just helping the offender, without supporting the needs of family members.

The Yellow Ribbon Project has a community programme that ropes in volunteers to make house visits to offenders' families to ascertain how their needs can be better met. They are then linked up to government and social service agencies. However, this programme is not solely targeted at drug offenders.

A former drug offender, who wanted to be known only as Idris, said he had come to realise the importance of getting his family involved in his recovery.

The 44-year-old cleaner, who has been battling a drug habit for the last 30 years, went in and out of prison five times. "Each time I had cravings, my wife didn't know how to help and only nagged," he said.

Ever since his wife started attending support group sessions at We Care three years ago, she and their children have been taking him to places such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens or Orchard Road whenever he gets the urge for drugs.

He said: "It is not so lonely a journey any more."

Accepting help after ultimatum from wife

When he was reunited with his family recently after being in prison for drug offences the last 18 months, Simon (not his real name) found it hard to cope.

His eight-year-old daughter did not seem to miss him. His wife, fed up with broken promises, also gave the 27-year-old an ultimatum: Kick his habit or she would file for divorce.

Simon, who works as a warehouse assistant, did not want to lose his family. Yet coming home after work to a wife who frequently questioned his whereabouts and a daughter who preferred the company of her friends only made him feel worse.

That led him to join Project Safe, a pilot programme launched by the National Council of Social Service to help drug offenders and their families in a holistic way.

If left on his own, chances of him relapsing are high, said Ms Tham Yuen Han, executive director of We Care Community Services, which helps run the programme.

She has begun counselling him on identifying the factors which trigger his addiction. His wife has also been turning up for couple counselling. Later on, their daughter will join them in sharing sessions, said Ms Tham.

"Factors affecting the offender and his family are often intertwined and hence treatment has to look at the family unit as a whole," she explained.

Simon said he is looking forward to learning parenting skills to help him re-connect with his daughter.

Coming from a dysfunctional family where his own parents were largely absent, he admitted: "I don't know how to be a parent because my own father was never around."


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