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Youth and drug abuse: easy access alarming parents in Hong Kong

Young people struggling with drug addictions is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable picture. Unfortunately, the media reports, as well as health and crime statistics tell us that many youths are finding it increasingly easy to obtain illicit drugs in Hong Kong. The effects of drug abuse on developing bodies and minds can be harmful; both short term and long. In this week’s article, Pacific Prime Hong Kong examines the stories of drug use in young people being reported, discusses addiction and overdoses, and provides answers for where parents and young people can seek help.

Drug abuse risks for youths increase with easier access

A recent SCMP article highlighted that young people are finding it easier to get illicit drugs in Hong Kong. Substances such as ice, ketamine, and marijuana are raising alarm for parents around the country. Figures from the Central Registry of Drug Abuse show that a significant 63% of young people are using drugs as a way to escape stress, depression, and boredom. 42% of young users admitted peer pressure and influence as a reason for trying drugs, while 25% sought euphoric, sensory satisfaction.

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Methamphetamine has become the most widely used drug across Hong Kong among all age groups, with women under 21 being a key demographic in user statistics. Despite Government assurances that addiction rates are in decline, counselors believe the numbers aren’t reflecting the reality. Whilst corner dealers are still very much a feature of the supply in Hong Kong, the Darknet has made it even easier for users to source substances through a secure, online network.

Young people are not just end-users in the drug trade either. Hong Kong Police arrested a 15-year-old girl, and her 23 and 24-year-old accomplices, after they were found attempting to cross a border with HKD 20 million worth of cocaine. Two were picked up at Shenzhen Bay, whilst the third man was caught in a raid on his home in Kowloon. Police say young people are lured with promises of easy money, travel and free drugs, and drug traffickers are now relying on friend-referrals to source new mules.

Identifying drug abuse in Hong Kong schools

Again, the Central Registry of Drug Abuse statistics reported that their 2014/15 Survey of Drug Use Among Students revealed a drop in the number of young people at school taking drugs; from 17,500 in the 2011/12 Survey to 14,500. Perhaps more concerningly, 81% of total student users claimed they had never sought help for their substance abuse whilst 17% admitted they took drugs alone, suggesting that schools may especially struggle with a “hidden” drug issue that can be difficult to identify.

In fact, in only 2013 the SCMP reported on the number of dealers who were arrested selling drugs to cash-rich pupils of English School Foundation (ESF) schools. Pupils as young as 14 years old were said to be hooking up with dealers peddling drugs from their cars, with NGO the Kely Support Group suggesting then that youth drug abuse was on the rise. In 2015, an 18-year-old Hong Kong Christian College student was fined HKD 10,000 for attempting to sell cannabis hash brownies and cupcakes at a school sports event.

Somewhat related, there have been a number of reports in recent years of parents giving their children “smart pills” to perform better at school. Drugs like Adderall, Modafinil, and Ritalin were being touted among parenting social media groups as being able to enhance memory and cognition, diminish fatigue, boost alertness, and help students feel more confident. Whilst some expressed outrage and concern for these practices, some media commentators said blaming parents was misplaced.

youth hanging out together drinking

The impacts of drug abuse on young people

Many adults are well aware that substance abuse at a young age can harm the development of a child much more than drugs affect older users. The reasons are common sense; a child’s brain and body are less developed, and are therefore less tolerant or resistant to the effects of drugs, and addiction can be easier to fall into. Substances like cocaine can cause heart attacks, marijuana use at a young age can impact long term focus and memory, and children using meth can develop anxiety, depression, and a number of other mental health issues.

Hospitalization can be a real concern for many parents whose children are identified as having substance abuse issues. Overdoses can be an experience for a drug user of any age, and a horrifying ordeal for parents. An article by The Cabin noted that Hong Kong young people’s ketamine habits in 2006 had resulted in an alarmingly high number of arrests, overdoses, and seizures throughout the region. Addiction is almost always a factor in many accidental overdoses, with serious personal circumstances impacting addiction.

Understanding substance use and overdosing

An overdose is a medical emergency where an individual has taken enough of a substance so as to cause the body stress as a reaction to the drug’s toxicity. There are a number of symptoms of an overdose, including severe chest pain and headaches, seizure, difficulty breathing, delirium, extreme agitation, and anxiety. You may find an overdosed user has abnormally high or low body temperature, they lose consciousness, their skin color can change (pale if using a depressant, flushed for stimulant use), and their pulse can be fast or slowed.

Many overdoses are accidental; a user may have taken more of a particular drug than their tolerance allowed for at that moment, they may have used a drug they’re not familiar with, or they may have mixed substances together. An overdose can occur from any method of substance use, whether it be smoking, snorting, injecting, or taken orally. The signs of overdose related to particular drugs include:

  • Depressants: dilated pupils, shallow breathing, weak or rapid pulse, clammy skin, and coma (which could lead to death).
  • Hallucinogens: psychosis, seizures, and unconsciousness (as with PCP overdoses).

  • Inhalants: seizures and unconsciousness (which can lead to death).

  • Marijuana: paranoia, fatigue, and possible psychosis.

  • Narcotics: clammy skin, convulsions, coma, and slow, shallow breathing (which can lead to death).

  • Stimulants: increased body temperature, increased agitation, hallucinations, and convulsions (which can lead to death).

If you believe you have a young person experiencing an overdose, it’s important that you call emergency services as soon as possible by dialing 999 in Hong Kong. Be as aware and perceptive as possible; if there is any paraphernalia, containers holding drugs (or drug residue), or anything at all that can help identify the substance, take it along with you to the hospital as it can help doctors identify the appropriate treatment.

drug abuse teen sitting at a dirty bus stop illuminated by a spotlight

Seeking treatment for drug abuse in Hong Kong

Addiction can be a shameful secret for users anywhere around the world, and Hong Kong itself stigmatizing those suffering substance dependency. A MIMS article quoted Director of the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers (SARDA), Angelique Tam, as saying users “[can] feel so ashamed… They do not know the solution. They are afraid their family might call the police, which is not a helpful strategy. We really have to try to tackle the issue of drug abuse hiddenness here.”

Shaming substance abusers is an extremely quick way to ensure that people won’t seek help when they need it; people can prefer to suffer in silence than to risk the ridicule of family, friends, and peers. Hong Kong psychiatrist, Dr Vanessa Ting-chi, points out that stigmatization exists even within the healthcare community, and can make connecting people in need with appropriate treatments more difficult. Addiction is a disease that can be addressed and treated, and that includes in Hong Kong.

The Narcotics Division of the Hong Kong Government’s Security Bureau has an online list of treatment and rehabilitation centers as part of the country’s multi-modality approach to combating drug abuse. There are 38 drug treatment and rehabilitation centers, and halfway houses, in Hong Kong; with 19 of them subvented by the Department of Health or Social Welfare Department). There are also compulsory placement schemes operated by the Correctional Services Department, as well as Hospital Authority-run substance abuse clinics.

Community-based counseling centers also exist, such as the Caritas HUGS Centre, KELY Support Group, and the Youth & Family Services section of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. If you have a young person you’re concerned about having a substance abuse problem, the first place you can check with is one of the above community groups or seek advice from your GP.

Will insurance pay for drug abuse treatment?

Unfortunately for many Hong Kong health insurance policyholders, drug and substance abuse treatment is usually outside of the list of covered benefits for most plans. If you find yourself in a situation where your child has been hospitalized due to substance abuse, or you’re wanting to send them to a rehabilitation center, you will likely find that the costs of such will be one you’re expected to bear personally. That said, there are some policies that might offer coverage, potentially under the mental health category.

The information will be in your policy document, so check the wording if you need to know if drug abuse treatments are covered. If you’re not covered for such benefits, or you’d like to know more about policies that can support helping young users become drug-free, contact the experts at Pacific Prime Hong Kong. Their experienced team is able to help find the right health coverage you need, even if it may be a little outside the box. For a free insurance quote or just some friendly advice, contact our team of consultants today!

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