Sri Lanka: Enabling community-based treatment and support for recovering drug users

Tushara* is a nineteen year old boy from the Ratnapura town in Sri Lanka. Thin and cheerful with bright eyes, he enthusiastically talks about his passion for studying German and French for his class twelve examinations. Just as one assumes that he is a student, Tushara reveals that his true passion lies in his work as a peer volunteer with the ECDIC (Environment and Community Development Information Centre), an NGO in Ratnapura which works with drug users and is one of UNODC's partners in Sri Lanka. "I was using drugs myself till some months back", says Tushara. "And I have now stopped using them. So I would like to help others who are using drugs."

Tushara tried heroin for the first time when he was seventeen years old and soon became addicted to it. "I went from place to place, doing all kinds of odd jobs to get the money to buy drugs, but I never stole," recounts Tushara. "When my father confronted me about my habit, I ran away from home. Few of my other drug using friends and I started living and working in a construction site. I would buy drugs from the money I earned as wages. But even when I was using drugs I knew this is not the real life I wanted. I was a good student and I really wanted to clear my examinations, but the craving for drugs destroyed everything in my life. I always wanted to stop, but did not know how."

Tushara's prayers for an upturn were answered when he had a chance meeting with the director of ECDIC, who sent a counselor to meet Tushara. "Mr Jeyanga kept coming after me and that was the turning point in my life," says Tushara. "I kept refusing to go to their organization, but he did not give up. Finally I decided to go and see what they do. Initially we even had some disputes and disagreements. But soon I started liking the place."

"I attended their fourteen-day long Low Cost Community Support (LCCS) camps. I also used to visit their Drop-In Centre (DIC) once a week. It was very difficult to stay in the camp for fourteen days; I often tried to run away." laughs Tushara. "But the camps really help our recovery."

The main aim of the LCCS camps, supported by UNODC, is to reach out to drug users in areas where treatment services for them are unavailable or limited. Qualified personnel associated with NGOs, hospitals and other such institutions conduct the camps. They first address the community to create awareness about the camp and involve them in mobilizing resources. They use local logistical support; for instance, the camps are conducted in school buildings or community halls. Food is provided by the community members. These not only bring down costs, but also involve the community in the recovery process. The camps, which run for nearly two weeks, initially focus on detoxification where the drug users are provided medical support to manage withdrawal. After this, they are provided with psychosocial support by way of counseling and education. This is to help them overcome withdrawal and prevent relapse after the camp. It is also to educate them about reducing their high-risk practices in terms of sexual behavior or injecting drug use. After the camp, the clients are supported with follow up services for about eighteen months, through linkages with other service providers in the area.

It took Tushara nearly 6 months to recover from drug use. Today he is married to a girl who also works in ECDIC. Along with conducting English speaking classes in his home town, he is keen to continue his education and get more involved in ECDIC's activities. "My friends laughed at me when I told them that I had given up using drugs. They tried to get me back to it, but I was able to refuse them. I told them to come to our organization, see what was happening and try to give up drugs. Some refused, but some are undergoing treatment. I do think they will be able to give up drugs in the near future."

For 33 year old Jayanta*, living in Colombo, giving up drug use was not so easy, despite visits to several rehabilitation centres. As a member of a dance troupe, Jayanta started using heroin at the age of 20. Over the next ten years, he became steadily addicted to the drug, along with handling a job.

"Because of pressure from family and society, I used to go to rehabilitation centres," says Jayanta. "They were very useful to handle the withdrawal. But once I came back to my environment, I would start using heroin again."

Luckily, Jayanta came to know about a recently established DIC in his neighborhood by the Mithuru Mithuro Movement, one of UNODC's NGO partners. When he visited the DIC and the NGO's office, he felt that he had finally reached a place where he was understood. "As drug users, we are considered as 'dirty' people. But here, there are people who constantly support us and guide us to get our lives back on track. That's when I realized that there is a need for establishments within the community to help people like us. We need such places where we can be safe, share our thoughts and feelings and remain positive."

Jayanta has been free of drugs for the past few months. He spends most of his time with the NGO, helping them in their everyday activities and working as a peer educator. As he regains confidence, he is happy to put his past behind him and build a better life for himself.

The stories of both Tushara and Jayanta underscore the need for evidence based medical and psychosocial services in an environment that respects the dignity of the drug users and their right to avail of treatment services. As Jayanta concludes, "Most of us think that we can't fall prey to drugs because we know they are dangerous. If one does fall into the trap, we think there is no way out of it. Or we think that things will only change when all drug dealers are eradicated from the world, which is difficult. However, we must know that drug use can be stopped. But a person can't do this alone. It needs a lot of societal support and mentoring to lead drug users to the other end. But it definitely can be stopped."

UNODC's work on drugs and HIV prevention in Sri Lanka is possible thanks to the support of AusAID in association with the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board of Sri Lanka.

*Names changed to protect identity

Also read our previous web stories related to community-based treatment and support for recovering drug users in Sri Lanka:

Heroin use: so easy to start, so difficult to stop

My life, my community - no place for drugs