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Alarm bells rung over spike in drug addiction among SA’s youth - 12 is average age

The facts are sobering: instead of dolls, cars and computer games, children aged 12 and younger are using drugs and alcohol, and the problem is growing.

The South African Anxiety and Depression Group (Sadag) said 12 was the average age for drug dependency in South Africa, while half of the country’s teenagers also used alcohol.

One case involved an eight-year-old crystal meth addict.

Age, peer pressure, low cost and the easy accessibility of drugs and alcohol were cited as major risk factors for substance abuse among adolescents and young adults.

Sadag has launched the country’s first WhatsApp chat platform for those who need information or help with substance abuse.

The Ke Moja WhatsApp platform will be operated in partnership with the national Department of Social Development.

Sadag press officer Kerry Phillips said providing multiple forms of contact to the youth meant they could easily reach the organisation without their conversation being overheard.

The WhatsApp platform will provide live access to a trained Sadag counsellor, and basic counselling, as well as self-help tips and tools, for dealing with substance abuse for themselves or their loved ones.

“We need to engage more with young people, get them help and provide support wherever they are and try to prevent the substance abuse problems from getting worse,” said Phillips.

Between April 2021 and March 2022, Sadag’s substance abuse helpline received nearly 90 000 calls from people aged 18 to 35, an increase of 107% from 2020.

Childline KZN acting director Adeshnie Naicker said helplines did work and it was important to give children access to as many avenues of help as possible.

She said Childline had been operating a helpline for several years and they received an average of 8 000 calls a month. “While we do get hoax calls, 80% of the calls are legitimate.” Naicker said the number of young people addicted to substances was increasing and while they had tried to create awareness, it had barely put a dent in the stats.

She said combating addiction was a community effort and people should not be afraid to “upset the apple cart” when trying to help. Often children who looked older than 18 were allowed to buy alcohol at bottle stores, and in some cases liquor store owners sold alcohol to children who were obviously underage. Naicker said cough syrup, glue and whoonga (a mixture of low-grade heroin and other additives) were the most common drugs used by children, especially those who live on the street because it was cheap and easily accessible.

Afrika Tikkun Foundation chief executive Alef Meulenberg said the less hope there was in society, particularly relating to youth unemployment, the more likely the increase in social ills such as substance abuse. “People at a younger age are starting to feel hopeless,” he said. Meulenberg said helping the youth complete their schooling when they fell behind, and creating more economic opportunities for them, was crucial. They also needed to see more examples of young people in their communities making positive progress.

Paul James, the director of the Bereshith Centre in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, said his most shocking encounter was with an eight-year-old crystal meth addict from Eldorado Park. “The child’s mother, who is a sex worker, said it was easier for her to buy him a bag of meth for R50 a day than to feed him,” he said.

James runs a halfway house for “recoveries” who have already gone through the detox phase and were ready for what would certainly be the fight of their lives: to stay clean.

Pieter Stols, programme manager at the Freedom Recovery Centre in Nigel, Gauteng, said he had been involved in a case in which a mother had given her son his first dagga zol at nine years old and an ecstasy tablet at 12. He said while people were quick to say addicts brought addiction upon themselves, the propensity to use drugs was developed in a child’s formative years, between the ages of two and 14. Stols said alcohol was the most widely available legal drug in the world, followed by cigarettes and cannabis.

“In our experience the problem that is on the increase is that of co-occurring disorders. This is where substance use disorder co-exists with mental and/or medical health issue/s.”

“However, literature suggests that the young brain (12, 13, 14) getting exposed to THC (weed), stands a bigger chance of developing schizophrenia than an adult starting to experiment with weed. About one in four people are genetically predisposed to develop schizophrenia because of smoking weed,” Stols said. He said that in disadvantaged communities, nyaope (a mixture of low-grade heroin, cannabis and other substances) was the bigger problem, followed by crystal meth, while alcohol was the gateway drug.

Nyaope is sometimes called the poor man’s heroin. It’s a downer – so it will suppress negative feelings. It makes you forget about your circumstances. Crystal meth is an upper, it makes you feel better about your circumstances, makes you feel invincible,” he said. Molo Songololo’s Cape Town director, Patric Solomons, said there were few community resources addressing substance use, abuse and addiction problems in youngsters in poorer places. He said alcohol and drug abuse and dependencies were growing in areas such as Beaufort West, Atlantis and Delft.

Children as young as 10 had easy access to alcohol and drugs, were exposed to alcohol and drug use, regularly drank alcohol, smoked dagga and even experimented with other hard drugs, he said. “Many sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape and sexual exploitation victims Molo Songololo works with have been given alcohol, and in some cases dagga as part of the sexual grooming and actual abuse process. In a few cases they have been given other hard drugs to manipulate and control,” he said.

The Ke Moja WhatsApp Chat Platform - 087 163 2025.

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