Maldives: '1410' - Help for drug users just two rings away

"After three years of heroin abuse, I finally see hope", says Abdul* on his fifth day at a drug detoxification centre in Villi Male island, Maldives. 26 year old Abdul started using drugs three years ago in Sri Lanka, where he had gone for his undergraduate education. As drugs started taking over his life, he came back home to Male, the capital of Maldives, with his studies unfinished. Even as he got a job with a computer firm, he was desperately looking for a way to quit drugs. "No one in my family knew about my habit. For me it was like a disease I was trying to get rid of. Three months ago I went to the local hospital and they suggested I enroll in their detox programme. But I did not have insurance then. Recently, my wife got to know about my drug habit. With her support, I went back to the hospital, but they were dealing with a dengue outbreak at that time. Just as I was wondering what to do, my wife's brother-in-law told me about the '1410' drug helpline."

1410, a 24/7 national toll - free drug helpline was launched in the Maldives on 26th June 2011 - World Drug Day. A collaboration between UNODC, the Department of Drug Prevention andĀ  Rehabilitation Services (DDPRS), Government of Maldives and local telecom companies, the helpline is targeted at the general community, with special focus on drug users seeking treatment, their families and co-dependants. It aims to provide community members, especially in the remote islands of Maldives, with accurate information related to substance use and the different drug treatment, care and associated support services available in the country, in a confidential and professional manner. Mr. Mohamed Nasheed, the President of Maldives launched the helpline in Male and emphasised the importance of strengthening drug use prevention, treatment and care services, considering the growing use of drugs in the country. The helpline is subsidised by two telecom companiesĀ  who are collaborating with the Government of Maldives as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities.

"I have always been very discreet about my drug habit and was very hesitant to give my personal details," says Abdul. "However, when I called the helpline, the counselor was very helpful. She gave me information about the different drug treatment options available such as detoxification, rehabilitation and Oral Substitution Therapy (OST) and encouraged me to visit them at DDPRS. I went to meet them and decided to go in for the 21-day detox programme. The counselors arranged for me to enroll with the detox centre in Villi Male Island and I soon got admitted there."

12 counsellors from the DDPRS have volunteered to operate the helpline, working on daily rotational basis. All of them have prior experience in working with drug users and are fluent in English and Divehi. During regular work hours (8 am to 4 pm), they handle calls from the DDPRS premises. During post-work hours and on weekends, the call is diverted to a mobile phone which remains with the counsellor who is on duty. The counsellors are paid an additional fee for the night and weekend shifts. All of them received an initial training before the launch of the helpline, which focussed on motivational interviewing, screening callers, assessing their requirements and providing them referrals to appropriate services. The counsellors have with them a helpline handbook, a services directory, monitoring forms and a fully charged mobile phone. The handbook includes the policy and protocol for dealing with overdose cases, suspected children-at-risk and other possible emergency situations. The services directory contains a comprehensive list of all drug treatment and rehabilitation services available in the country, with updated details of the focal persons, work timings, services offered etc.

"We have to answer the call within two rings," says Ahmed Firaaq, a counselor who has been working with DDPRS for the past five years. "We screen the callers, assess their requirements and depending on the query, give them information and direct them to appropriate services. We have a monitoring form, which we fill up at the end of the call. We receive a number of calls from people who want to quit drugs. Many of them ask about how they can apply for different services, what are the legal procedures involved, how soon they can get the services... Many also ask if sharing needles causes HIV and if they need to test for HIV if they share needles... We also have general callers like teachers and other professionals who ask how to identify if someone is using drugs, how can they be helped etc."

A helpline like 1410 is critical in a country like Maldives which comprises hundreds of islands and where drug use is affecting nearly every household. Till July 20th, the helpline received 581 calls, of which more than 50 percent of the calls were requests for drug use related information and assistance, such as counselling, managing withdrawal etc. A significant number of calls were from family members of drug users and drug users themselves.

"This is an excellent initiative that has been started in the country," says Aishath Mohamed, the programme manager of the Society for Women Against Drugs (SWAD), an NGO. "We can reach out to a large number of people though the help line, including parents and the youth. In fact, two parents whose children are using drugs came to us referred by the helpline. They are now part of our counseling and support programmes for parents. However, I feel the helpline needs much more advertisement and publicity as many people still don't know about it and this is a very important initiative that should be sustained."

"I sincerely believe that there are many people who can benefit from the helpline," concludes Ahmed Firaaq. "In my experience as a counselor, I have seen many co-dependents and clients get information very late, because they don't have the courage to ask for help in person. Also, drug users mostly get information from within their groups, which often is incorrect. Through the helpline, we can give them correct information and treatment options, while maintaining confidentiality and anonymity."

The '1410' helpline has been initiated as part of the UNODC-supported project 'Strengthening the national response to prevent drug abuse in the Maldives' which is being implemented by the Government of Maldives. The project is funded by the European Union (EU). The helpline is subsidized by the two telecom companies Wataniya and Dhiraagu.

* Name changed to protect identity