Parents and teachers, be vigilant! | Sunday Observer
Preventing drug use among schoolchildren

Parents and teachers, be vigilant!

8 January, 2023

The recent revelation by the Education Ministry that 81 schoolchildren had been found to be drug addicts and directed to rehabilitation has come as a shock and cause for concern among health officials. The Sunday Observer spoke to Senior Lecturer in Paediatrics University of Sri Jayewardenepura and Consultant Paediatric Neurologist – Teaching Hospital Kalubowila, Dr Saraji Wijesekara to find out how addiction to harmful drugs during a child’s pre puberty age as well as among adolescents still in school can undermine the health of these children whose bodies are still developing.


Q: A few days ago the Education Minister tald Parliament that 81 schoolchildren have been directed to rehabilitation due to drug addiction within January 2022 up to now, and that a small number ( 3) of children below 14 years were among the offenders ,the rest being adolescents (between 15 and 19 years.). Ministry sources have said this is the first time such young schoolchildren have been found to be addicted to drugs. According to your own xperience, how many schoolchildren under 14 years have been found to be addicted to drugs?

A. I’m unable to give you the exact figures as we still haven’t got the official data on this.

Q: What about adolescents?

Dr Saraji Wijesekara

A. There have been instances where adolescents have been addicted to drugs. However this is a remarkable increase in the number that have been reported over the recent past. However in Sri Lanka according to recent data about 2.7 percent youngsters have been identified as abusers of illicit drugs. These figures include schoolchildren as well.

Q: According to studies most Lankan youth use drugs such as amphetamine, Cannabis or ganja or marijuana and Heroin. Cocaine and Benzodiazepines and similar drugs. As a Paediatric Neurologist, tell us what you consider as the most adverse health impacts that could happen to children who have begun using drugs from their pre-puberty age?

A. These drugs directly affect the brain function of these children and as a result they may have deficits of memory, learning issues, attention, decision making,coordination, reaction times and coordination. Children also get addicted to them.

Q: What are the signs parents should look out for?

A. They have to be vigilant about their child’s behaviour, which may show changes in personality and attitudes.There could be sudden mood swings like bursts of anger and irritability and withdrawal from the rest of the family at times. They may also appear fearful, anxious or paranoid on certain instances. School teachers also may complain of deterioration of school work and change in the usual cheerful nature of the child. If a child behaves abnormally for no known reason all of a sudden, it is always best to inquire from friends and school teachers and close contacts of the child to see if they too have noticed these changes.

Q: A recent study has proved that declining grades, absenteeism from school and other activities, and increased potential for dropping out of school are problems associated with adolescent substance abuse. Do you agree?

A. Yes. These problems have been identified among adolescents who are addicted to illicit drugs.. Early detection is very important since if detected late it may be too late for them to recover them completely and the best time of their lives will be lost

Q: Many substance-abusing youth engage in behaviour that places them at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. True or false ?

A. Mostly true as some of these illicit drugs are injectables and there is danger when a drug addict uses the same needle to inject another person. HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B are contracted through blood. So if an infected person injects an uninfected person with the same needle the chance of that person getting the virus is inevitable. Once they are under the influence of these illicit drugs they are vulnerable to sexual abuse or engage in unprotected sexual practices. Hence the chance of contracting other viruses that are sexually transmitted is also high.

Q: Can a person suffering from chronic adverse effects of drug abuse be cured ?

A. The chronic adverse effects include damage to the liver causing liver failure, seizures, strokes and damage to the brain losing ability of memory and attention. Chronic lung disease has also been reported alongside many psychological and social problems. With time some of these effects may be irreversible and both medical and psychological support with rehabilitation is needed to overcome the reversible effects.

Q: Can these diseases be reversed or their severity be reduced if detected and treated in time?

A. If detected early there are treatment options for cure. Most of them include psychosocial rehabilitation and some may need drug therapy. Rehabilitation often happens in institutions under experienced therapists and medical doctors.

Q: Can a rehabilitated drug user lead a normal life?

A. Yes. Once a drug user is being rehabilitated that is the positive message that needs to be convinced to them. If they are rehabilitated completely they can lead a normal life facing exams and attending school and work while engaging in recreational activities initially under the guidance of the rehabilitation team.They can get married and have a normal sex life if they remain free from illicit drugs.

Q: Reports have said that children in primary schools have also begun taking new illegal drugs like ICE and Ecstacy, reportedly in the North, East and Central provinces. As not many people know what these drugs are, tell us what they are and how they act on a user? Is it correct that the immediate effects from ice are intense pleasure and clarity and that users have lots of energy and think clearly, which is why they take it before an exam especially? What does it contain that drives this energy?

A. It contains methamphetamine.

The chemical component speeds up the messages travelling between the brain and the body. Therefore as you mentioned the person who takes ice will experience intense speed in all activities.On the down side the drug is said to be more dangerous because it contains Methamphetamine which can lead to what experts call cardiotoxic effects, including: Narrowing of the blood vessels. High blood pressure. Weakening of the heart muscle. These are cardiac side effects and may even cause heart attack and sudden death. Apart from the cardiac effects there are effects on brain causing seizures and intense headaches, confusion, unconsciousness and coma

Q: What are the main causes that drive young people to take drugs? To be “ high”? Peer pressure? Curiosity and the desire to experiment with something new?

A. I think it’s a combination of all these. Some children are exposed to these drugs at home where their parents or close contacts themselves are drug addicts. Once they experience the initial pleasure they want to feel ‘high’ at the same time. So many innocent children fall prey to peer pressure,. especially when they get together and an inexperienced person wants to experiment something new, without realising that they can become addicted after a few days when their body begins to crave for it.

Q: In your opinion, how many young people who experiment with drugs become drug abusers later?

A. If they aren’t picked up and diverted along the correct path most will end up being drug addicts. On the upside, those who exercise self control will be able to revert back to the time before they became addicted to drugs.

Q: How do we recognise the physical consequences of using illicit drugs on a person?

A. Abusing these illicit drugs could result in symptoms such as loss of appetite and loss of weight which may ultimately result in malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies : Behaviour changes that could be violent or laid back and showing mood swings like anger, temper tantrums and depression.They may describe certain things that are not real (hallucinations) or may believe that they are in a higher position than others. They could have sudden breathing difficulties,chest pain, heart attacks, blood pressure swings, strokes and sudden untimely deaths.

Q: What are the psychological and emotional impacts children using drugs could have while whose bodies are still developing?

A. The psychological and emotional Impacts are severe and long lasting. They lose their self-esteem. Change of beliefs and attitudes are quite worrying. They become abusive to their parents and loved ones. Some of them may become a real menace to their families, friends and school as they need money to buy the drugs when they have withdrawal symptoms. They may engage in thefts and be victims of sexual abuse which in turn damage the self image. The emotional qualities like empathy,love and affection are lost. Not only they but their loved ones also suffer to a greater extent. So all in all it is a menace to the entire society.

Q: The media recently said that due to a reported approximately 60,000 of school-going children in the Batticaloa district using drugs, the Police have begun conducting search operations in schools and sudden raids to check if students have drugs in their possession. Is this a good thing?

A. While this needs to be done in order to identify drug abuse among school children, the most important thing in my opinion would be to identify the persons who supply these illicit drugs to the society. Unless the authorities work out a way to stop the influx of illicit drugs into the country, these search operations may just be one off and the next day the drugs will be distributed again as usual.

Q: Regarding the very young group of under 14 age group drug abusers could the numbers rise in the future?

A. Yes this could be an emerging threat to society. Due to the current economic crisis children of all ages are victims of different types of child abuse. This includes a new born baby stranded in a dustbin, women begging on the road carrying a child who was given sleeping pills, and a child used for drug trafficking by his own parents.

Q: In your opinion what are the most urgent steps that must be taken at school level to halt this new dangerous trend?

A. It is imperative that the principal, teachers and student leaders be on the watch out for these problems. Maybe the school could have committees inside the school and even at classroom level to identify this.

Q:What is your message to parents to prevent children from taking drugs from an early age?

A. Be close to your child and try to be their best friend. Get to know who they associate with. Always help them if they have any issues with peers. Educate them on ill effects of the social menace that they have to face and fight.

Pave the correct path to them and be vigilant of the slightest changes in behaviour and moods. Give them confidence that you as parents will be there at any moment that they need help with.