Dr Dharmakanta Kumbhakar
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)
We often experience seeing adolescents and young children walking on the streets or sitting in some isolated places of Guwahati with glue bottles stuck to their nostrils. Sometimes, we see them lying on the streets in a state of altered sensorium due to severe drug intoxication. Most of them are street children with the habit of substance abuse. Non-medical use of intoxicating chemical substances in order to achieve alterations in psychological functioning has been termed as substance abuse. There are thousands of homeless children, commonly referred to as 'street children' in Guwahati. They live in unsafe places such as streets, railway platforms, parks, near temples and durgahs, in markets, under flyovers and bridges, near bus depots and stops, in makeshift huts in slums. Substance abuse is affecting around 82% of them. The problem is more prevalent amongst the higher age group street boys with longer duration of street life.
Such children’s substance abuse often commences with alcohol, tobacco and inhalants which are legal and easily accessible in the city. The most common type of substance abuse in the city's population of street children is inhalant use. Inhalants are cheap, readily available and legal; making them a popular way for these children to get a high. Whether it is glue, gasoline, paint thinner or nail polish remover; they use these products for sniffing, inhaling the fumes for their intoxicating effect. Majority of substance abusers are in the habit of sniffing dendrite as an intoxicating substance regularly. Dendrite tubes are cheap and readily available. They can spend Rs 10 to 20 easily to buy a tube of the dendrite. They sniff it either through the nose or mouth. Sniffing of dendrite could cause addiction, change in personality and brain function, cognitive and neurological impairment caused by brain cell death, lung and breathing problems and sudden death due to cardiac arrhythmia. They cause teratogenic effects. So, if a street girl is pregnant and she’s sniffing, it gets passed on to her baby and causes birth defects of various kinds. We should spread awareness amongst these children against the adverse effects of sniffing dendrite and motivate them to stop the habit.
Usually, most of the shopkeepers are not aware of the harmful effects of the dendrite. So, we have to discourage them from selling dendrite to children. The district administration and law-enforcing bodies must enforce law to ban the sale of dendrite to children. The others most commonly used psychoactive substances are alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, whitener, cocaine, opiates or hallucinogens. Some of them use intravenous drugs which cause addiction and in many cases death from overdose. Injecting drugs carries a high risk of HIV infection, as well as many other diseases, because of sharing contaminated needles. Most of them use more than one type of psychoactive substance.
They begin the habit of using substances for many reasons. The most common reasons are essentially peer pressure, the need to survive and to experience pleasure or satisfy one’s own curiosity. The nature of continuous exposure to the street and its associated lifestyles make them vulnerable to the use of psychoactive substances. They are at risk of a number of different dangers daily, as they work and live alone without adequate food, shelter, education, affection and social security. As a positive coping mechanism to deal with the stress of their lives, their adverse circumstances and to survive on the streets; the majority of them choose maladaptive strategies such as drinking alcohol and using drugs. They turn to psychoactive substances as a way to escape from the grim reality that they face in life, to bolster their courage and strength to cope with the everyday challenges of life on the street, due to frustration concerning living on the street and to cope with cold, hunger and fear. They don’t have access to recreational facilities and often venture into activities available to them on the street such as drug abuse and drinking. A lot of children use drugs just for pleasure and experimentation.
Using intoxicating substances, of course, is not at all an effective solution to such problems, since it renders them less capable of dealing with stress and more likely only to turn to even more substance abuse than before. The drugs usually make it difficult for them to communicate with others. Furthermore, substances make it harder for them to reintegrate into society after living on the street. The fact is that most of these children that are using substances become socially handicapped. They often struggle with addiction and other health problems. Sometimes they try to kill themselves as using alcohol or drugs increases suicidal tendency. In order to save money to buy psychoactive substances, they cut down on food expenses; many of them drink tea to dull hunger and even remain hungry. They often engage in activities such as stealing, pick-pocketing, drug-peddling and prostitution for money to buy psychoactive substances.
The NGOs and the Government should come forward to curb this problem and save millions of vulnerable lives. It requires specific legislation and attention from the government. The main responsibility to curb this problem and to assist these abusers should be given to some city-based NGOs, which should be backed financially by the Government. The volunteers of the NGOs must help these children to understand the dangers of intoxicating substances so that they have a better chance of turning their lives around. In planning the interventions, the service providers should not consider these children as a single and homogeneous population as their rates of substance abuse vary widely depending on age, gender, ethnicity, duration and current living circumstances in the street. They should consider and assist every substance abuser street children as a unique individual.
Special efforts are needed to hook up these children with treatment services and other kinds of help such as life skills and job training. Some of them may need a pre-treatment stage where their immediate crises are addressed through sheltering services and short-term detoxification.