By Gabriel Olawale

I Choose Life Foundation in partnership with the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA has staged a summit focused on devising new strategies and research-backed methods to improve and de-stigmatize mental health conditions, as well as curb the alarming rate of drug abuse particularly among young Nigerians.

The summit took place in Lagos on the 29th of October and was attended by the Chairman of the NDLEA, Rtd. General Buba Marwa, alongside other mental health professionals, policymakers, prominent mental health advocates, social celebrities, students, and representatives of the media.

According to the coordinator, Chijioke Obioma, the summit was staged to chart a new course for the perception of mental health and drug abuse among young Nigerians, with a particular focus on the solutions prescribed by public and private issues responsible for the management of the issues.

He explained that the I Choose Life foundation targets young Nigerians between the ages of 14 and 25 in its campaign efforts based on studies that indicate that the bracket represents the primary stage of initiation, whether into vices or virtues as the case may be. Essentially, in describing the foundation’s underlining approach, he emphasized the need to ‘catch them young’ either as preventive intervention or early rehabilitation and re-integration into society.

Indeed, a 2019 survey led by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in collaboration with the Center for Research and Information on Substance Abuse and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showed that over 14 million of Nigeria’s adult population reported a considerable level use of psychoactive drugs, a figure that triples the 2016 global adult average. The highest levels of drug use was recorded among people aged between 25 to 39.

In his own address, the NDLEA Chairman, Rtd. General Buba Marwa, reiterated the agency’s goal of a drug-free nation through a combination of legal and sensitization efforts to reduce demand and cut off supply. He also highlighted the importance of socio-economic factors, including poverty and productive engagement, to mental health conditions and the tendency for drug usage.

The agency’s comprehensive approach to achieving its goal, according to Chairman Marwa, can be found in the recently-passed National Drug Control Masterplan which he says is likely to be formally launched before the end of the year. The master plan contains a multi-agency and intergovernmental roadmap to “push and drive the agenda for drug control” with specified roles for the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, state governments, stakeholders and international agencies.

Chairman Marwa emphasized the importance of strong and stable family units, vigilant and conducive communities, and a quality educational system to stem drug abuse and produce responsible and well-rounded individuals. He also highlighted the progress of the agency in breaking the supply chain of drug cartels in the country, with over 1000 convictions of illegal traffickers and suppliers in the year 2021 alone.

Similar to other speakers, the NDLEA boss urged an expansion of the agency’s budget to, among others, facilitate the construction and upgrade of rehabilitation centers and provide support and timely interventions in youth-populated areas such as school campuses.

For his part, Dr. Otefe, a psychiatrist and psychologist, attributed the use of drugs to two primary drivers of human behavior: the pursuit of pleasure and escape from pain. To solve the problem, he urged new strategies focused on the individual, family, and society including government and schools. He recommended that rehabilitation should not be seen as punitive but rather an attempt to help people.

Other speakers such as music celebrity Waje Iruobe noted the impact of peer pressure in the spread of substance abuse. She described her journey from Benin City through Nsukka before finally arriving in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, where as an entertainment celebrity, she had to contend with pressure related to being in social circles where alcohol was routinely served.

David Olaranmi of the David Olaranmi Foundation told the harrowing story of how social relations in the United Kingdom altered the course of his life for about seven years when he was thrown into a world of drugs and exposed to addicts who went beyond the pale – including the sale of a four-day-old baby – to get a fix.

Pharm. Humphrey Julius, the founder of Zero Tolerance to Drug Abuse, also shared his past struggle with cocaine addiction. He highlighted a fundamental flaw in therapeutic treatments offered to victims in rehabilitation centers across the country by describing his situation where he was administered the same drug content he abused to fall asleep when suffering a cocaine-induced lack of sleep and restlessness.

The summit featured panel discussions and presentations from young mental health activities and representatives of agencies focused on mental health and curbing substance abuse. Selected students and young advocates for mental health also delivered prepared speeches and stage performances. Some of the recommendations and ideas proposed drew applause from the NDLEA Chairman, Rtd. Gen. Buba Marwa, who offered assurances that the agency will partner with some of the individuals.

The summit, according to Chijioke Obioma, is part of I Choose Life’s mission to foster honest and solution-driven conversations in safe spaces where important stakeholders can meet and combine efforts to come up with innovative solutions aimed at improving mental wellbeing and solving the country’s drug abuse problem.

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