Dorji Tshering (left) and Reema Samman find the programme an eye-opener.
Drug addiction problems are on the rise in the region.

THE issue of substance abuse knows no boundaries.

In the United Nations World Drug Report 2016, it was cited that over 29 million people who used drugs were estimated to suffer from drug use disorders, but only one in six of them were undergoing treatment.

While many don’t understand why or how people become addicted to drugs, there is a general belief that those who use them lack moral principles or willpower, and that they could stop their drug abuse simply by choosing to.

However, it could be more complex than that. Drug addiction is akin to a disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions or a strong will.

With this in mind, Cyberjaya University College of Medical Sciences (CUCMS) embarked on a project with the Commonwealth’s Colombo Plan Secretariat, just over a year ago, to develop an academic and skill-based postgraduate programme to educate and train workers, who deal with and manage substance abuse patients.

The Postgraduate Diploma in Addiction Science (PGDAS) programme was designed to meet international standards, and candidates from developing nations were provided scholarships by the Colombo Plan’s International Centre For Certification And Education Of Addiction Professionals (CPICCE).

CPICCE, established on Feb 16, 2009, as a training and credentialing arm of the drug advisory programme in Colombo, Sri Lanka, is part of a global initiative funded by The Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) of the United States Department of State with a special collaboration with the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counsellors (NAADAC) of USA.

CUCMS is a registered and accredited private university with a focus on healthcare programmes.

According to its spokesman, the postgraduate diploma programme aims to develop trained professionals in addiction science who are able to screen, assess, construct treatment plan, and conduct individual- and group-level interventions for the treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts.

This is to reduce health, social and economic problems associated with substance use disorders (SUD), he said.

An agreement was signed by CUCMS and CPICCE for the commencement of this programme with the effective date on Sept 1, 2015, for a term of three years.

Under the agreement CUCMS would receive from CPICCE the updated Universal Treatment Curriculum for Substance Use Disorders (UTC) for the programme, while CUCMS would prepare the PGDAS programme in line with CPICCE’S UTC series.

The first cohort of 13 health practitioners from 10 countries came for the one-year programme almost a year ago to acquire and apply science addiction knowledge and its fundamentals to the treatment of addiction, acquire and master practical skills required in the treatment of substance abuse, learn about interpersonal skills and social responsibilities with ability to work efficiently with all levels of society, and gain professionalism in dealing with clients and stakeholders, while observing ethics and social code of conduct.

The subjects of the course include treatment of SUD, physiology and pharmacology for addiction professionals, addiction counselling skills and psychoeducation, common co-occurring mental and medical disorder, community-based peer recovery support system, case management for addiction professional, community outreach and crisis intervention.

Two of the programme participants, Reema Samman, 30, an addiction counsellor at the Pakistan Anti-Narcotic Force and Dorji Tshering, 42, Deputy Chief Programme Officer at the Demand Reduction Division at the Bhutan Narcotics Control Authority, said they had the opportunity to exchange ideas, gain new knowledge and be trained in Malaysia’s hospital settings.

Dorji looked forward to returning home and begin the work of eradicating drug addiction in his country, as well as improving patient care.

“If you go by the number of people abusing drugs or engaging in drug trafficking in Bhutan, it is not much of a concern. But if you based it on our population, which is just about 700,000, it is a major concern. Every year the number of youth abusing drugs is rising, especially those taking designer drugs. The drug of choice is cannabis, which is easily available in the wild. The second problem is pharmaceutical drugs, which can be obtained from across the country’s border. There is also easy access to alcohol. Bhutan is the first country to ban tobacco, but we have a black market tobacco trade,” he said.

The Narcotics Department where Dorji has been attached for seven years, carries out prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programmes for drug treatment with the country’s Health Ministry. But there are no actual personnel with relevant qualification in addiction science as yet on the ground.

“I have attended short courses on drug abuse prevention and treatment before. The modules of PGDAS are more detailed. While we do have counsellors in our country, they are not trained in the manner we have studied here. There are processes involved that are lacking in my country, such as different skills and methods that are addressed in this programme. It looks at the more scientific aspect of overcoming drug addiction. I hope to address those missing elements and and bring changes in my country.”

Reema, who has been trained as a psychologist and has on-the-job training in addiction science, has been volunteering in drug addiction prevention in Islamabad for four years.

“In 2013, there were 6.45 million drug users aged between 15 and 64 in my country. The reason being we are bordering the biggest opium producer, which is Afghanistan. The harsh terrain at the borders makes it hard to control drug trafficking, and as part of the trafficking route, we are victimised,” she said.

She highlighted that heroin is a rising menace in Pakistan. And as in Bhutan, the younger population is increasingly into designer drugs.

“I have been involved in youth awareness campaigns on drugs. There is a large number of population addicted to drugs due to the instability at our borders as well as lack of employment. The addicts find a solace in cannabis and hard drugs,” she said.

For Reema, attending the PGDAS programme had increased her vision and her scope of competency.

“I hope I can implement the new things I learnt here with the existing system in Pakistan. The field is new there and at the private treatment facilities in Pakistan, there is no adherence to standards in addiction science. There are accredited professionals in treatment, but not in smaller towns. My stint here will give me the opportunity to give the same type of training to personnel in those areas.”

Reema and Dorji are now in their final semester of the programme, where they will be doing a two-month practicum and their project papers.

“I will be doing my practicum in Kuala Lumpur so that I will learn the methods and skills used in drug addiction treatment in this country. But I do think the practicum term is too short and we can’t do much in terms of counselling within the period. Six months would really be an eye-opener,” said Reema.

Dorji will return to Bhutan to put into practice what he had learnt.

“The professionals are not there (in Bhutan) and our knowledge is not adequate. Case management is important in treatment, and I will try to bring about changes in how we manage cases, and streamline and get them sorted,” Dorji said.

He said it was timely that the PGDAS programme got introduced in the region as drug addiction problems were rising.

“We must focus on capacity building and impart knowledge on addiction science.”

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