Struggling with stigma, stress: Ex-drug offender finds hope at new centre for recovering addicts

Former drug abusers Henry and Lim Shi Mei at Step-Up@Northwest, a centre for recovering drug addicts. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Former drug abuser, Mr Henry, felt lost and struggled with everyday tasks, such as settling his meals and bills, after his release from the Drug Rehabilitation Centre.

"When we were in (the rehabilitation centre), we actively wanted to come out, to start a new life. But after being released, the struggle was real. Even simple things like choosing what to eat, settling bills and reinstating a phone line can be very stressful," said Mr Henry, who is in his 30s and received an eight-month sentence in 2019.

"I wouldn't deny that there is (a temptation to go back to drugs). I believe a lot of people relapse because of the stress level, how the community looks at us and the stigma," he added.

Mr Henry was able to turn his back on drugs and regain his footing in life after he joined a support group at Step-Up@Northwest, a centre for recovering drug addicts operated by voluntary organisation Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (Sana).

The centre in Woodlands, which has been in operation since July 2020, was launched on Saturday (May 14).

Speaking to the media at a briefing session on Wednesday ahead of the launch, Mr Henry said he joined the support programme in July 2020.

Over about 10 support sessions, recovering drug addicts were able to share their struggles and seek solace in one another.

The sessions were conducted virtually then owing to Covid-19 restrictions and were facilitated by Sana and Path I Choose, a grassroots initiative under the Yellow Ribbon Community Project. The Yellow Ribbon links trained grassroots volunteers with families of newly incarcerated offenders to offer them support and assistance.

Said Mr Henry: "I realised that I'm not the only one facing the same issues. That really helps a lot, knowing there are other people who are also going through the same thing as me. We learn from one another."

Through the programme, Mr Henry was encouraged to pick up a hobby to prevent a relapse. As he enjoys singing and was a member of the choir in his secondary school, he decided to join a community choir.

Mr Henry also learnt to tap the skills he already had. Before his incarceration, he worked in a customer service role and has now found a job in the same field with a different company.

Besides support programmes, Sana's newest centre also provides free counselling and employment assistance, as well as heavily subsidised tattoo removal services.

Sana has two other such centres: Step-Up@Sengkang and Step-Up@Taman Jurong.

Ms Lim Shi Mei, a 29-year-old recovering drug addict, decided to remove her tattoo at Step-Up@Sengkang following her release from incarceration in 2017.

She now assists others who are looking to remove their tattoos.

Ms Lim, who works in e-commerce, said: "The tattoo removal programme helps people who feel like they are stigmatised because of their tattoos, perhaps when they are looking for a job. Some tattoos are gang-related.

"Removing tattoos is one of the ways to give them their confidence back."

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