More seeking help to break chains of addiction

The entry levy of $100 for locals at the casinos here is not enough of a deterrent as it still costs less than a trip to Genting Highlands, says One Hope Centre's executive director Dick Lum.

More people here are seeking help to kick their addictions, which include drugs, alcohol and gambling, according to Singapore's largest treatment centre.

Last year, the National Addiction Management Service (Nams) at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) treated 1,556 new patients - a 25 per cent increase over the 1,245 in 2010.

A decade ago, the figure was just 200.

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The growth is being fuelled by "increased awareness of addictions as a treatable condition, and better knowledge of the avenues of help", IMH's vice-chairman of Nams' medical board, Dr Christopher Cheok, told The Straits Times.

While drug addicts last year formed the largest group of new cases at Nams, at 38 per cent, the sharpest rise was in the number of gamblers seeking help.

Since 2010, it jumped by about 60 per cent to hit 418 cases last year.

In comparison, the number of drug and alcohol addicts rose by about 13 per cent each over the same time.

This has seen gambling addiction catch up with alcohol addiction as the second-most-common problem, at 27 per cent each.

Other patients seek treatment for other issues such as cyber and sex addiction.

Meanwhile, youth below 30 are emerging as the driving force behind rising drug-addiction figures, causing so much concern that the Government last month formed a multi-agency task force to tackle the problem.

Over the past decade, the total number of drug abusers arrested has risen by an average of 2 per cent each year, but the figure for those aged below 20 is 7 per cent.

For those between 20 and 29, it is an even higher 11 per cent.

Younger people tend to have a more liberal attitude towards drugs. Those aged 17 to 21 are more likely to think that "it's all right to try drugs for a new experience", a National Council Against Drug Abuse survey conducted last year showed.

Young drug abusers are also using "softer" drugs such as cannabis and methamphetamine, seeing them as less harmful and addictive than traditional drugs such as heroin.

This is exacerbated by the legalisation of cannabis in other countries.

National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan felt the "hip" factor of drug use has contributed to less stigma being associated with it.

"Because there is so much information on social media about celebrities experimenting with drugs, it is often misperceived as simply a 'lifestyle' choice. So taking drugs is somewhat normalised and the social stigma is buried under all the hype."

Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association counsellor Ambiga K.S. said young drug abusers tend to be those who are lonely, bored or have low self-esteem.

She recalled a case she handled - a 27 year-old man arrested two years ago, who started using heroin simply because he wanted to mould himself after the late American singer Kurt Cobain, who abused heroin.

"He didn't find a role model in his family so Kurt Cobain became his role model and drugs became a part of it. And also to enjoy the sensation in the music. So he started following the trend of Kurt Cobain and went into drugs."

Preventing young people from picking up drugs, she said, begins with parenting at home.

"Once (youth) have proper education (on drugs) and once they have good parenting, it will be difficult for children to find identity with drugs or any negative influence.

Once they get addicted it's very hard to pick them up.

Prevention is better than cure."

Nams treated a total of 2,562 patients, including repeat ones, last year, up from 2,090 in 2010.

"As awareness increases further, we hope that more of those in need of help will come forward," said Dr Cheok.

More hooked on gambling at casinos, online

Casinos and the growing popularity of online gambling have been highlighted as possible reasons why more people are seeking addiction help.

One Hope Centre last year saw 523 addicts seeking counselling, a nearly 50 per cent jump compared to 2012.

Its executive director, Mr Dick Lum, said: "Many clients that we counselled felt that it is all right to gamble, since the Government allows the casinos to be opened here, and this is very misleading."

He added that the entry levy of $100 for locals would not deter Singaporeans, as it still costs less than making a trip to Genting Highlands in Malaysia - where they have to pay for other amenities such as hotels and transport.

Most clients at One Hope Centre are in their 40s, similar to those at the National Addictions Management Service (Nams), an arm of the Institute of Mental Health.

But at Blessed Grace Social Services, which runs a gamblers recovery centre, most of those who come forward are young working professionals hooked on gambling websites.

The centre has seen a 20 per cent increase in addicts over the last two years.

Its executive director, Ms Deborah Queck, said: "The Internet provides easy access for people to gamble. The young professionals are earning good income, so they don't think that gambling is a problem...until they are in debt."

At counselling centre ECMS Consultants, most patients are also in their late 20s or 30s, said its clinical director, Mr Gerald Goh.

He has also seen foreign students who go to the casinos every week.

"For them, it's free to go to the casinos. On average, their parents give them $15,000 to $20,000 for pocket money a month, so they go in there to 'have fun'.

But when they lose their pocket money, they start to borrow from friends."

Experts said that more people are seeking help because there is more awareness about problem gambling.

The vice-chairman of Nams' medical board, Dr Christopher Cheok, noted that there was more publicity on the help available with the opening of the casinos here in 2010.

Dr Munidasa Winslow, an addictions specialist in private practice, added that advertisements on problem gambling were useful.

"They put into people's mindset that gambling addiction is a real condition which can be treated," he said.

A technician who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan, said that he found help online.

The 35-year-old started gambling at age 15, when his father got him hooked on betting horses.

"I got into serious debt and my friends or relatives avoided me because they thought I would ask for money. My wife and I nearly went through a divorce. I had to stop."

Since September, he has been attending counselling sessions once a week at Blessed Grace Social Services.

The father of two said: "It's very hard to quit on your own so you have to get help and support."

Rise in number of alcoholics

The number of alcoholics seeking help may be growing at a slower rate compared with gamblers, but there are still more of them getting treated in recent years.

At the National Addictions Management Service (Nams) of the Institute of Mental Health, there were 415 new cases of alcohol addiction between April last year and March this year - an increase of about 13 per cent compared to three years ago.

The centre records numbers by its financial year, which runs from April 1 to March 31.

Experts attributed the upward trend to increasing levels of stress and the easy availability of alcohol.

Dr Munidasa Winslow, an addictions specialist in private practice, said he sees about 20 per cent more patients this year, compared to three years ago. He now has at least 100 new cases a year.

"Drinking is one of the few avenues to let off steam which is still legal," he said.

"In our stressful work environment, lots of people look forward to weekends when they can party and let down their hair."

Dr Thomas Lee, a consultant psychiatrist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital also said that many addicts see it as a form of relaxation, but get hooked on it over the years.

He has seen a rise of about 30 per cent of alcohol addicts in the last three years.

Dr Lee said: "A lot of my patients starting drinking in their NS days because of peer influence. And generally, you can find alcohol everywhere. Later on, it becomes part of their lifestyle."

Mr Suresh Anantha, head of allied health and principal counsellor at Nams, added that society is more accepting of drinking, and alcohol consumption has generally been going up in many developed countries.

"Apart from stress, people may drink in a way that is harmful without being aware because of misinformation about alcohol. More public education in this area will be helpful," he noted.

Dr Tan Hwee Sim, a specialist in psychiatry and consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre said that there is more awareness now that alcohol addiction is a treatable disease, and not merely a bad habit.

But the number of alcohol addicts seeking help is not growing as fast, and this may be because many alcoholics do not want to admit they have a drinking problem.

Dr Lee said: "Alcoholics often hide and lie about the extent of their drinking. But when... drink-related problems occur such as drink-driving or abusive behaviour, this is when they decide to seek treatment."

Mr Suresh added: "It could be because there has been more publicity on problem gambling and the avenues of help available alongside the opening of the casinos... compared with alcohol addiction."

One addict, who declined to be named, said he decided to get help when he ended up sleeping on the streets and became violent.

The 32-year-old software engineer sought help from the Alcoholics Anonymous Singapore group and has been sober for over two years now.

But he still attends meetings with the group weekly.

He said: "When I was younger, drinking helped me to boost my confidence in social settings but I became too attached to it and I lost it.

"It created more problems, and my wife left me. I was such a mess and it's not the kind of life you want to live. It's very important to know you have a problem and want to live. It's very important to know you have a problem and to get help."

This article was first published on December 25, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.