Former addicts, experts discuss substance abuse on National Addictions Awareness Day

Mr Thomas Koh, now 46, began abusing drugs at 15 as an easy way to escape the traumatic home environment. PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH

SINGAPORE - Mr Thomas Koh turned to alcohol and drugs as a teenager to cope with family violence and childhood abuse.

Now 46, he began abusing drugs at 15 as an easy way to escape the traumatic home environment. The addiction lasted into his late thirties and affected his marriage as well as his relationship with his siblings.

He said: "What started off as recreational use of drugs later became a daily occurrence. By my late thirties, I had hit my lowest point. I had health issues and faced bankruptcy and divorce. I contemplated suicide but I could not bring myself to do it. I wanted to live."

With support from a family member, Mr Koh took his first step towards recovery by admitting himself to a hospital for treatment to overcome his addiction.

Mr Koh is paying it forward as an assistant counsellor at the National Addictions Management Service (Nams) at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). He told his story in a virtual talk show on Friday (Aug 20), during an event for National Addictions Awareness Day.

The National Addictions Awareness Day aims to raise awareness about addictions and promote science-based intervention for recovery.

Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary, who was guest of honour at the event, said drug and alcohol addiction remained the top two most common addictions in Singapore, with over a 1,000 new cases diagnosed every year.

He noted the important role played by Nams in the recovery of patients struggling with substance abuse through services such as critical in-patient detoxification programmes and out-patient support groups for patients and their families.

He said: "Today, we expect that the Internet and gaming addiction rates, especially among the youth, will rise over the years. So it is important that Nams keeps up with emergent addiction trends to tailor your services for at-risk groups."

Citing a 2016 Singapore Mental Health Study, according to which alcohol abusers are seeking help within an average of four years compared with 13 years in 2010, Dr Janil said: "These figures are encouraging and show that our efforts to raise awareness of addiction have enabled people to seek help earlier. But we need to do more to reduce stigma, and to assure persons struggling with addictions that they will be well-supported on their road to recovery."

Dr Janil highlighted how community partners such as The Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, We Care Community Services, and the National Council on Problem Gambling have been involved in setting up helplines and web chat services to support those in need.

"We can all do our part to work towards an addiction-free society and support those affected on their journey to recovery. Early intervention leads to better treatment outcomes," he said.

The event, called Let's Face It Together, was streamed on Nams' YouTube page on Friday and featured segments by former addicts sharing their experiences, as well as a talk show and panel discussion by experts on addictive substances, behavioural changes and recovery treatments.

Mr Thomas Koh with his colleagues. PHOTO: INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH

In his opening address, Nams programme director Lee Cheng said: "We believe there will be many others struggling with their addiction in denial, shame, or lack of knowledge of resources or deterrence to seeking help. Therefore, besides providing clinical services, public education is an essential and integral part of Nams' work."

Now remarried with a three-year-old toddler, Mr Koh has mended his relationship with his family, particularly his two siblings. He recalled how meeting former patients with HIV and those with physical disabilities during his time in hospital helped him find a new perspective.

"When I saw these individuals supporting other patients and motivating them, I wanted to overcome my problems and be like them. As an assistant counsellor, when I come across recovering addicts, I tell them, 'Do not do recovery alone. No man is an island. Learn to support each other. Family members may take time to accept you again, but be patient'. After my recovery, my brother said he was proud to be my sibling, and that was a priceless moment for me."

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