Abu Dhabi tackles rising substance addiction

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Substance abuse is becoming a growing burden on the economy of Abu Dhabi, as it is across the region. However, increased spending on both prevention and treatment may help reduce the burden and repay the investment into tackling this problem many times over.

A recent report into the social and economic impact of substance abuse in the UAE found that the financial cost of substance abuse was as much as Dh5.5bn ($1.6bn) annually. The results of the study, conducted by the Abu Dhabi National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) and released in late March, showed that cost of loss of productivity was far greater than the cost of treatment, schemes to reintegrate former addicts into society and drug prevention programmes.

According to the NRC’s research, which was supported by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, the social cost of drug abuse was significant. For example, the majority of those suffering from addiction in the UAE have not completed high school and around 45% of those with addiction were unemployed. The report made several recommendations including the need for greater levels of co-operation between various entities to develop a surveillance system or an observatory that would allow for collection of accurate data and analysis. Additionally, the report also recommended placing greater emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, with a specific focus on reintegration, as well as improved prevention through the implementation of tested family-oriented health education programmes.

Though addiction rates have risen sharply over recent years, particularly the abuse of prescription drugs, an encouraging statistic was that 75% of patients seeking treatment, did so voluntarily or were referred by their families. The balance was referred by the police. The high percentage of those seeking assistance points to both a growing awareness of the problems of abuse within society as well as the opportunity for treatment.

Meeting a growing need

The NRC currently has the capacity to provide in-patient treatment at its existing facility which has 72 beds, a total that will rise to 169 after the completion of a new building in 2016, part of its AED285m ($77.7m) expansion. The centre also provides outpatient services; group, individual and family counselling, and other support activities.

Since its inception in 2002 as the country’s first comprehensive drug treatment and rehabilitation centre, the NRC has become widely seen as a model for substance abuse treatment and support across the UAE, with the centre having been asked to create a similar facility in Ajman to treat patients in the northern emirates.

Prevention better than cure

While its primary role is to provide support and treatment to victims of substance abuse, the NRC is also taking on an equally important task, that of promoting awareness of the risk of drugs, as part of a broader campaign amongst young people.  

According to Dr Hamad Al Ghaferi, the NRC’s director general, the project has experts working with educators in the school system to provide tools to encourage healthier lifestyles among pupils. “The goal is that the programme will eventually help students stay away from drugs, alcohol, prescription medicines and other forms of addictive substances,” he told OBG.

The NRC hopes that the so-called “Fawasel Programme” will raise awareness of the threat of substance abuse among students. Following this, the NRC is also developing policy, in collaboration with 15 various government bodies, most notably the Ministry of Interior, Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) and the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), that will provide schools with a clear set of directions of how to deal with cases of drug abuse.

Another area where the Centre is working to take rehabilitation beyond treatment of addiction is efforts to help patients return to society. Last year, the NRC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Abu Dhabi Tawteen Council – a government entity charged with identifying employment opportunities for Emiratis seeking work – to help develop labour market opportunities for recovering substance abuse patients across the country.

Dr Al Ghaferi pointed out that by offering avenues back into the workforce, and through training programmes intended to boost patients' skills and self-esteem, the NRC and the Abu Dhabi Tawteen Council hope to ease the social pressures that lead to addiction. “It will support them to effectively reintegrate into society, making them positive drivers in the UAE’s continued economic development,” Dr Al Ghaferi said.

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