Parents of undergrad addict send him to $19,000-a-month rehab in Thailand

The Cabin in Chiang Mai is a rehab centre that houses and treats addicts - both drug and alcohol - including those from Singapore. The estate's unique selling point, especially for Singaporeans, is the promise of anonymity.
PHOTO: The Cabin in Chiang Mai

He was 21 and a student at the National University of Singapore.

But he was also hooked on methamphetamine (Ice) and couldn't kick the habit.

Shawn (not his real name) eventually dropped out and his parents shipped him off to The Cabin.

They feared it was a matter of time before he was arrested for drug use in Singapore.

Treatment there isn't cheap - it is US$14,000 (S$19,000) a month. On average, a client stays for three months.

Mr Tony Tan, 40, a social science graduate from the Australian College of Applied Psychology, is the only Singaporean therapist at The Cabin.

He says Shawn's habit started with the clubbing scene.

Shawn was making decent money as a private tutor.

Mr Tan says: "That sudden boost in income was one of the triggers of his addiction, but he didn't see it because he thought as a grown-up, he knew what he was doing.

"As with the eventual outcome of most addictions, it started getting in the way of his day-to-day life.

"Shawn was forced to drop out because he failed subjects and, subsequently, he failed to progress to the second year."

Shawn's parents suspected he was on drugs and the final straw came when he blew all the tuition money they had given him.

They found out when the university sent them a reminder.

His parents then put him on a three-hour flight to Thailand.

When he first got there, Shawn didn't want to do anything.

"In fact, he didn't even want to get out of bed," recalls Mr Tan.

"All he wanted to do was stay in his room and watch TV."

FEAR

Singaporeans make up about 60 per cent of the Asians who check into The Cabin. Many go there for fear of getting arrested if they were to see a doctor in Singapore.

Singapore law makes it compulsory for doctors to inform the Central Narcotics Bureau if they are treating any person for drug addiction.

Of the 70 Singaporean clients under Mr Tan's care during his five years at The Cabin, Shawn's case stood out.

"He was forced to get help there because his parents didn't want to risk sending him to a treatment centre in Singapore," says Mr Tan who has been a counsellor at The Cabin since 2011.

"They were worried that he would end up getting charged and jailed."

At least 2 in 3 drug users are below 30

Recently, a number of celebrities were hauled up for drug use.

They include Ah Boys To Men star Noah Yap, 22, who on March 2 was sentenced to nine months in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) detention barracks after he was convicted of consuming cannabis.

Yap, who was in the midst of national service, was charged in the SAF Court Martial Centre for offences he committed during his time at the SAF Music and Drama Company, after enlistment in May 2014.

Separately, local model-club DJ Tenashar and her boyfriend Thorsten Nolte are on the wanted list of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).

DJ Tenashar, whose real name is Debbie Valerie Long, 31, and 42-year-old Nolte, who is radio DJ Jamie Yeo's ex-husband, were arrested last October for "drug-related offences", says a CNB spokesman.

The arrests threw the spotlight on yuppies and young offenders.

CNB numbers show that at least two in three new drug abusers are under 30.

PEER INFLUENCE

CNB tells The New Paper on Sunday that it is seeing more cases of contamination among youth, where drug abusers share or introduce their peers to drug abuse.

A CNB spokesman says: "A typical scenario is where a youth comes into contact with drugs and establishes a relationship with the person who can supply him with it.

"This youth would then introduce and influence his friends to consume drugs together.

"The extent of the contamination is dependent on the size of the youth's social circle."

LAX ATTITUDE

A study by the Task Force On Youths And Drugs last year found that the younger demographic tends to have lax attitude towards the different substances.

It showed that many young people perceived cannabis as a soft drug, and that the harms and addictiveness of cannabis are less serious than tobacco.

The report added: "Younger people may also hold the misconception that 'Ice' and cannabis are less addictive and less harmful than heroin."

Resilienz Clinic psychiatrist Thomas Lee, an addictions specialist of more than 10 years, says attitudes have changed.

"They perceive drugs as something that's not as harsh as it actually is.

"They seem to view it in a more recreational manner and that it's no longer a danger," he says.

POP CULTURE

The Daily Telegraph reported that hit TV show Breaking Bad may be the cause of a shocking rise in crystal meth usage across the UK and Europe.

The report said parts of the EU are now being flooded with methamphetamine.

MORE MONEY

Dr Lee says he has seen an increase in the number of abusers between 20 and 39.

"The main reason is they can afford the drugs," he says of the yuppie abusers.

"Most of them justify the abuse by saying it is a means of escape from their stressful lifestyle, demanding jobs and troubled relationships."

These were three common reasons his patients offered him in the 10 years he has been in the business.

"Most of them don't know how to handle interpersonal relationships that lead to stress and subsequently to either consuming alcohol or drugs in hopes of escaping," he adds.

"The stressful lifestyle stems from the competition among peers while having to keep up with rising costs."

EASILY AVAILABLE

Dr Lee says illicit drugs appear to be more easily available now.

"Drugs are easily available nowadays. You go to any nightclub and you would be able to find it," he adds.

"Some of my patients were able to make synthetic drugs in their homes.

"Some of them even had theirs delivered to their homes after purchasing it online."

Counsellors at the Pertapis halfway house say some of their patients were supplied by young expatriates.

A spokesman tells TNPS: "It is assumed by local abusers that the suppliers are expats and travellers from abroad.

"For example, some of the expats and international students bring drugs with them (into Singapore), influencing the young locals.

"We've heard that they usually bring in Ice and ecstasy from the Philippines, heroin from Malaysia and marijuana and amphetamine from Indonesia and Thailand."

By the numbers

LAST YEAR

3,338 drug abusers arrested

40 per cent of them under 30

69 per cent of new drug abusers under 30

TOP 3 DRUGS ABUSED

77 per cent: Methamphetamine

12 per cent: Cannabis

9 per cent: Heroin

2 per cent: Other drugs including ecstasy, ketamine, nimetazepam, cocaine

Addicts include doctors, lawyers, managers

Almost 90 per cent of The Cabin's Singaporean clients are white-collar workers

In the last five years, The Cabin has seen 253 Singaporeans check into its centre for everything from alcohol to drug and even sex addiction.

A spokesman for The Cabin was vague about the profile of its clients because of confidentiality clauses.

But the spokesman says 89 per cent of Singaporeans with go there are white-collar workers, including 12 per cent in legal and 3 per cent in medical professions.

Forty per cent of them hold middle-management positions while 32 per cent senior management.

The Cabin presently has 14 Singaporeans - all white-collar workers - seeking treatment.

"A lot of them tell me that they come here to get help because they fear being handed over to the authorities," says therapist Tony Tan.

Another overseas centre, Solace Sabah, also has Singaporeans as patients for different addiction problems.

One in four of its patients are from Singapore and half from Malaysia.

In the first four months of this year, the number of Singaporeans there increased to 29 per cent," says its spokesman.

Almost all its patients are white-collar workers, including doctors, lawyers, civil servants, accountants and general managers.

"At Solace, we have a youth programme where we have seen Singaporeans as young as 15 who have been admitted for substance abuse," the spokesman adds.

"The cost for a 28-day programme is US$6,900 (S$10,000) for a quad-sharing room, US$9,990 for twin-sharing and US$13,900 for single."

On average, patients stay for about two months.

CONFIDENTIALITY

Addictions specialist Munidasa Winslow, a member of The Cabin's team in Singapore, says parents send young abusers abroad because they don't trust the confidentiality here.

He adds that some patients feel that confessing a drug habit to a local doctor would lead to an arrest.

The Ministry of Health should be notified but it goes against the grain to have to report to the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) or any arresting authority when people come to seek help," says Dr Winslow.

Singapore law requires doctors to inform CNB if they are treating someone for drug addiction.

CNB can then act on the information to ensure the patient stays off drugs. The patient may also be questioned.

CNB tells The New Paper on Sunday: "We will continue to take action against drug abusers and work with parents and members of the community to educate the public against drug abuse."

Good food, massage at The Cabin

On its website, The Cabin describes its Chiang Mai centre as a luxury resort.

Nestled next to the Ping River, therapists working on the secluded premises say the rehab centre provides "high quality addiction treatment in an environment designed for healing and growing".

Treatment costs US$14,000 (S$19,000) a month and "six out of 10 of our patients stay the full three months", says therapist Tony Tan.

A full rehabilitative journey at The Cabin, founded in 2009, lasts over 90 days, a spokesman tells The New Paper on Sunday.

The Chiang Mai centre is equipped with 72 beds, and each patient gets his own room, with a king-size bed, as privacy is imperative, says Mr Tan.

And just like a pricey holiday, clients get to enjoy relaxing activities.

"Part of their rehabilitation includes getting a traditional Thai massage, Pai - said to help release the tension and stress of withdrawal.

"A good rub, a good massage can help release the stress," Mr Tan adds.

Besides the one-on-one and group therapy sessions - which focuses on changing an addict's mentality - he says each patient at The Cabin is also allocated a personal trainer tasked to help addicts attain a healthy lifestyle.

"The food served is buffet-style," he says.

"Breakfast is the standard full English breakfast but lunch and dinner feature different cuisines such as Italian, Mexican and Chinese."

AFTERCARE

After patients have completed their stint at The Cabin, therapists say most of them continue with after-care to ensure they don't fall again.

"We offer online counselling services but how often they attend aftercare counselling sessions depends on the clients' needs," says Mr Tan.

Group online counselling sessions are free but one-on-one counselling sessions are US$120 each.

"On average, our clients attend sessions twice a week for the first two months and once a week for the following four months," adds Mr Tan.

In the last five years, The Cabin has seen more than 80 per cent of its clients steer clear of their addictions.

The outpatient rehabilitation centre has 21 other counsellors from the US, UK, Spain, South Africa and the Middle East. Its clientele comprises mostly Australians, Europeans, Middle Easterners and Asians.

It also has 40 support staff (for counselling work), one doctor and 15 addiction nurses. On top of that, The Cabin has 15 personal trainers and 200 miscellaneous workers for cleaning and maintenance.

The Cabin also has outpatient clinics all over the world including Denmark, Sydney and Singapore.

Dr Suresh Joseph, head counsellor of The Cabin Singapore, says: "About 90 to 95 per cent of the clients I work with here tend to be expats. The vast majority of them are alcoholics, aged between early 40s and late 50s.

"The No. 2 addiction is sex. Some of them suffer from both addictions."

The Singapore branch began its operations last September.

"The Singapore branch is outpatient - clients who have gone through the initial detox continue their aftercare here," he says.

The Cabin Chiang Mai says on its website that its treatment method is more effective than conventional methods and yields a 96 per cent completion rate.

crobert@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on May 22, 2016. Get The New Paper for more stories.