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Singapore

IN FOCUS: Breaking the cycle of drug addiction passing from parent to child

SINGAPORE: When Mr Alvin Chiong was growing up, he watched as his father, who he says was an opium addict, fed his drug habit in the family home. 

He did not see anything wrong with it at the time. 

“I just felt like it’s normal,” said Mr Chiong, now 49.

During times when his father – who Mr Chiong says was also addicted to alcohol and gambling – did not get his fix and went through withdrawals, his family would have to face his violent outbursts. 

When he was seven, his mother had enough and left, leaving him and his brother with their father. 

At the age of nine, he decided he did not want to take money from his father anymore and opted instead to work a variety of part-time jobs to support himself, such as selling otak-otak and newspapers. 

Unable to find love at home, Mr Chiong said he chose to “outsource” his need for companionship. 

“I wanted to be recognised, I wanted to find my own identity. So I mixed with the neighbourhood boys - and most of my neighbourhood boys that I mixed with were all doing drugs,” he said.

“I started glue sniffing, I started taking sleeping pills and I proceeded to marijuana before I even collected my IC (identity card) at 12 years old,” he said. 

Though his father was an addict, Mr Chiong admits he gave little thought to the possibility that he was heading down the same road.

“To be honest, my father was not in my mind anymore … I just wanted to feel happy. I just wanted to do what I want to do,” he said. 

Mr Bruce Mathieu also had negative influences as a child. He grew up with four relatives who were drug abusers. 

"I actually grew up in an environment where drug abuse was very rampant," said the 50-year-old. 

While his mother had told him “drugs are bad for you”, that was the extent of his knowledge of drug abuse. Curiosity got the better of him, and that led him to eventually try drugs for himself.  

READ: More admitted to drug rehab centre in 2019, driven by changes in law aimed at reducing relapse

Mr Mathieu recalled that when he was growing up, his mother had to go out to work all the time. 

“Being alone at home, I got a bit lonely. So I started going out looking for friends, for peers,” he said. 

He fell into bad company and started getting into fights. Shortly after he entered secondary school, Mr Mathieu joined a gang, mostly out of a need for a sense of belonging, he said. Three months after that, he smoked marijuana for the first time. 

“It became my problem for the next 30 years,” he said. 

By the age of 15 he was hooked onto another drug - heroin. 

“And then heroin became the scourge of my life for many, many years,” he said, adding that he was introduced to yet another drug, meth, in his 20s. 

However, the law eventually caught up with him, and at the age of 22, he was imprisoned for drug possession and drug-related offences. 

Mr Mathieu said he felt like there was no turning back after his first stint in prison. 

“The first time I came out of prison, just imagine … one would think the very first time you’re away from your mum for so long, all you want to do is go back, hug your mother, ask for forgiveness, you know?” 

But that was not the case, Mr Mathieu said. 

“The first thing I did when I stepped out of prison, I called a cab. I took a cab to my supplier … I smoked heroin, got high and then I went home.” 

He ended up going in and out of prison several times over the next three decades. 

Mr Chiong and Mr Mathieu are just two examples of inter-generational drug abuse, where drug-taking by parents can play a role in their children developing their own habits and ultimately addictions, later in life.

LINK BETWEEN PARENTAL DRUG ABUSE AND THEIR CHILDREN

In 2017, psychologists from the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) concluded a decade-long study on the impact of parental drug abuse in Singapore. 

The study found that of the 7,880 parents incarcerated for drug offences between 2008 and 2017, 1,203 had at least one child who had offended. 

This means one in every five children of drug offenders had themselves committed a criminal offence, with the top two being drug-related offences and property crimes such as burglary. 

The results of the study were published earlier this year in the Home Team Journal, a publication by the Home Team Academy.

The SPS study also looked at two groups of youths with parents who had previously been admitted for rehabilitation in prison for drug abuse.

Entrance of the Drug Rehabilitation Centre. (Photo: Marcus Ramos)

One group was made of youth offenders from the Reformative Training Centre, the Drug Rehabilitation Centre as well as the Community Rehabilitation Centre – 81.8 per cent of whom had drug antecedents or had committed drug-related offences – while the other group was made up of non-offenders. 

It found that parental drug abuse had similar effects on both groups, including weakened attachment to parents, lack of social support as well as exposure to drugs within the home. 

“As a result of their parents’ regular drug abuse, 50 per cent of participants grew up in a dysfunctional environment when their home became a drug den for their parents and their parents’ drug-abusing friends,” the report said, noting that children often saw drugs and drug paraphernalia such as syringes left lying around at home. 

The study suggested that constant exposure to the drug use of parents could have normalised children to observed antisocial behaviours, noting that a “significant portion” of the participants had developed permissive attitudes towards drugs.

The study’s findings are consistent with other research conducted on the topic, it noted. 

READ: ‘I want to change … and I need help’: The repeat drug abusers on a mission to stay clean

Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA) executive director Abdul Karim Shahul Hameed said SANA’s own observations of its clients mirrored the findings from the SPS study. 

“Children whose parents were involved in drugs may adopt a more lax view towards substance use. Oftentimes, these children end up seeking a sense of belonging and acceptance outside the home, and inadvertently end up mixing with the wrong company and getting involved with substance use,” he said. 

One of the biggest challenges children in such situations face is the lack of adult caregivers to provide them the care and support that they need, he added. 

Since these children are likely to be exposed to confusing and stressful situations such as watching a parent get arrested, it is important for them to have outlets to process these feelings and understand such experiences, said Mr Abdul Karim. 

“Children with caregivers who are able to provide emotional and mental support during such situations often fare better, and are less likely to turn to antisocial behaviours to cope,” he said. 

“The presence of positive influences through caregivers and relatives will also deter a child from seeking social connections and belonging outside the home, where they are likely to be exposed to antisocial behaviours such as underage smoking and drinking to fit in with others.

“Many children with a family history of drug abuse were constantly confronted with feelings of inadequacy or difference amongst their peers, which makes it even harder to form a strong social circle,” he added. 

Mr Abdul Karim added that SANA’s own research on female offenders found that the children of drug offenders are more likely to become “parentified” – that is, they unknowingly take on the responsibility of caring for drug-using parents. 

“Parentification involves two aspects – taking on physical tasks for the family such as caring for themselves and their younger siblings or other family members, and emotional parentification where the child takes on the role and responsibilities of an emotional support system for the family,” he said. 

“Our study showed that parentification can impact the development of the child, particularly in increasing one's susceptibility to mental health issues and substance use, something which we have observed in some of our clients,” he added, though he noted that there are also children of drug offenders who have done well for themselves. 

SPS said it recognised the impact of drug abuse and incarceration on family stability.

“Through interviews conducted upon the offenders’ admission to the prison, SPS helps to facilitate the timely identification and referral of needs presented by the offenders’ families, including that of their children, to resources in the community,” SPS rehabilitation and reintegration division director Caroline Lim told CNA.

“Offenders can also request for assistance on behalf of their families and children at any time during their incarceration,” she added.

SPS collaborates with the Ministry of Social and Family Development as well as others to help stabilise families affected by incarceration and protect children against the risk of offending, she noted.

Ms Lim also pointed to SPS’ membership in the Community Action for the Rehabilitation of Ex-offenders (CARE) Network, which is made up of government agencies and social service organisations.

“These agencies and other partners work closely with SPS to run programmes and services aimed at addressing the impact of parental incarceration, such as casework and counselling, tuition assistance, parenting programmes, family bonding programmes and so on,” said Ms Lim.

READ: Drug rehabilitation is to help abusers from all backgrounds to kick the habit: Shanmugam

"I WANTED TO CHANGE MY LIFE"

Mr Chiong was around 22 when he was arrested for the first time –albeit for fighting, not drug taking. 

Though he was arrested several times after that, there was no worry on his part about getting caught – just concern over whether he would be able to get his supply of drugs. 

He turned to drug running, eventually quitting his job in graphic design to become a drug pusher. 

Even after getting married and having two children, Mr Chiong was arrested several times for drug activities. 

He attempted to mend his ways, on numerous occasions checking himself into a halfway house to try to break his drug habit, though he relapsed each time. 

“I told myself, I have to end this once and for all. I decided to let go of everything, I wanted to change my life,” he said. 

He checked himself into a halfway house for three years to ensure he would not return to a life of drugs and crime. His wife sought a divorce in 2011, but he stayed on at the halfway house. 

After his three years there, Mr Chiong was finally able to turn his life around, reconciling with his wife and working a number of jobs and becoming an anti-drug advocate, volunteering with the prisons and SANA. 

Mr Mathieu vowed never to be an absentee parent, after his own experience of growing up without his father. 

He got married and had a child, but ultimately lived out his worst fears after being imprisoned. 

He recalls a visit from his wife and daughter in April 2013, on the girl's fourth birthday. She was in a brand new dress, which she wanted to show off to him. 

She called to him through the glass partition separating them and asked him to carry her. 

“I didn’t know what to do … there was glass there, what could I do? I just shook my head.”

His daughter's tears were the turning point for him. He renounced his gang affiliations, and found the motivation to turn his life around and committed himself to his Christian faith.

Bruce Mathieu (left) and Alvin Chiong at The Living Well cafe at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where they work. (Photo: National Council Against Drug Abuse)

The SPS study noted the research pointed to the importance of parents and their caregiving roles in impacting a child’s antisocial behaviour, and highlighted that children inadvertently suffer the consequences of parental drug abuse. 

“As a result, children of drug-abusing parents constitute a vulnerable group in the community and they should be provided with the necessary support to reduce the negative impact experienced as a result of parental drug abuse and incarceration, as well as to prevent second-generation offending,” the study said. 

READ: Drug crimes cost Singapore S$1.23b in 2015, new study shows

Both Mr Mathieu and Mr Chiong worked together at The Living Well Cafe, a social enterprise located at Tan Tock Seng Hospital which employs vulnerable individuals such as ex-offenders. 

Mr Mathieu still works there, while Mr Chiong has joined the M2 Cafe, another social enterprise located at The Adelphi.

Now an anti-drug advocate, Mr Mathieu says some of the students he speaks to still want to try drugs for themselves, despite having heard about their negative effects. 

“Drugs are something that's not worth meddling with … You always think that you have the upper hand, but that is a lie that your brain invents so that you go and try drugs.

“When drugs have their claws in you, you’re screwed. Because drug addiction is going to be a lifelong battle.”

When asked whether he is worried about his daughter making the same mistakes as him and becoming a victim of inter-generational drug abuse, Mr Mathieu said he is strict but nurturing, and hopes to impart the lessons needed for his daughter to make the right choices. 

Mr Chiong meanwhile accepts that his responsibility to his two boys now is to lead by example. 

“I’m not worried about anything, they have to make their own choices in life. I can only be by their side to give them advice.

“Any choice you make now, be prepared for the consequences later,” he said.

Source: CNA/az

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