If there is one thing Wilson Ighodalo, the Founder, Drug Salvation Foundation, is passionate about, it is ridding the society of drug abuse. Ighodalo who also doubles as the National Coordinator, NDLEA Celebrity Drug Free Club Nigeria, is a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Master Trainer on Sensitisation on Drug and Drug Prevention, Treatment and Care. In this interview with Chiemelie Ezeobi, amongst other sundry issues, he strongly advocated for public health approach to substance abuse in Nigeria in a bid to address societal stigmatisation and discrimination against drug users. Excerpts:
What is your foundation about?
The Drug Salvation Foundation is a non-government and Non-Profit
Organisation aimed at promoting the quality of Public Health in the society by leading efforts in the prevention, education, advocacy and care of Substance Use Disorders etc. The organisation is based in Lagos and have driven drug abuse interventions across the country, organising trainings and prevention campaigns on substance abuse. It has organised various activities in a bid to raise awareness on drug abuse in the society. We have driven drug abuse interventions across the country, through quiz, debates, organising trainings, conferences, charity walk, courtesy visits, workshops, annual lectures and prevention campaigns on substance abuse.
We have reputable personality as board of trustees and founding fathers of this prestigious organisation in the person of Pastor Ituah Ighodalo, who is the Chairman of The Drug Salvation Foundation. He is the Managing Partner at SIAO (a firm of Chartered
Accountants and Management Consultants) and Senior Pastor Trinity House Church. We also have Otunba O.A. Lawal (Honorary Consul). He is at present the honorary Consul of Malta in Nigeria and the President of the Nigerian-Maltese Business Council.
Putting it in context, we are reaching out through advocacy campaign that seeks to address the current negative perception about people with drug related issues, by promoting evidence based approach which considers drug use as a public health, human rights and development agenda. It rest on the fact that existing (criminalisation and discrimination) response has failed to effectively address the drug challenge in our society.
What we adopted in The Drug Salvation Foundation as best practice, we do in-house training for our personnel and clients. As part of the efforts to build capacities of staff and associates for optimum performance. All humans are born geniuses. The onus is on all of us to discover, nurture and develop it for the betterment of the society. The need therefore for training and retraining for an enhanced performance cannot be over emphasised.
What drives you in pushing issues against drug abuse in Nigeria?
Drug abuse in Nigeria is a major cause for concern, especially since children as young as eleven years old, are abusing drugs. That informed part of my passion to champion the cause and children are the future of tomorrow, focusing on prevention and promotion of healthy lifestyle against substance abuse now became my ways of touching lives. I found The Drug Salvation Foundation served as a platform to share information and ideas about the problem of substance abuse. This included sharing ideas on how to communicate the message of zero tolerance to drug use. It also highlighted the fact that substance abuse interventions are aimed at saving lives, preserving families
and building stronger communities.
A number of investigations show that Nigeria is experiencing a sharp increase in young people abusing substances like drugs and alcohol. Many of the patients admitted to rehabilitation and treatment centres for substance abuse are children as young as 11 to 16 years old.
Drug and alcohol abuse at a young age is often the result of peer pressure, which starts at school. In addition, during the school holidays, children are often at home alone because their parents have to work. Children, especially teenagers, get bored and start hanging around with the wrong group of people, bad influencers. They are then pressurised into trying new drugs, smoking or drinking alcohol, because they want to fit in.
Once children start using substances, they often become problematic drug users. To feed their addictions they become involved in criminal activities as they try to get money to buy drugs. This can become a continuous cycle of conflict with the law. As part of our integrated approach towards promoting a drug free society, our NGO also looked at ways to target schools and the inner city youths.
How many years have you championed this cause?
My sojourn started as a media consultant to National Drug Law Enforcement Agency NDLEA in 2004. I am a member of Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria(APCON), I am an advertising practitioner.
You are a UNODC Master Trainer on Sensitisation on Drug and Drug Prevention, Treatment and Care and Drug Education for school children, how did that journey start for you?
UNODC training is an unbelievable experience that money can’t buy. As one of my areas of interest is substance use, I have been looking for a comprehensive online course to better understand the best practices and sciences in this area. I was so excited when I heard UNODC was training NGOs working on drugs, and after vetting I was qualified to take part in UNODC training supported by European Union funding and it has been on going for the past three years. The training in addiction medicine, Substance Use, Prevention, Therapy, Intervention, drug policy, treatment, counseling and Drug Education for School Children. Sincerely, is a global evidence based research training and knowledge on drugs. However, I still have other online diploma in substance abuse.
The training targeted at learning more about providing care to patients with alcohol, tobacco, and opioid substance use disorders. The course was able to do justice to appreciating the complexity of substance use disorders, diversity of care, and providing informed referrals to evidence-based support services. And also promoting recovery, safety, wellness, and harm reduction to improve patient care and support for those with substance use disorders.
What are your expectations about the present prevalence of drug abuse bedeviling the society, especially among the youths?
It is fast becoming a major public health issue in Nigeria. The rate at which young people get involved in illicit drug use and OTC drugs is scary. We have identified drugs as a major factor that tears families apart, the problem of drugs has led to the breakdown of families yet the situation appears endless. The Drug Salvation Foundation is focus on what I consider the most important aspect of the war against drugs which is drug abuse prevention. We commend the NDLEA, Customs, Police for seizing drugs and prosecuting traffickers but my expectations, stopping new drug users from taking drugs is the best way to a drug-free society.
The anti-drug campaign in schools and I am also suggesting the use of other activities and sports as a way of positively engaging young people to shun drug abuse. Drug abuse is a local problem that must be tackled by an aggressive campaign in schools. Students must be provided with basic and factual information about the nature and effects of drugs for them to make informed decisions because of this understanding, The Drug Salvation Foundation authored a book “Student Handbook On Drug Abuse Awareness and Prevention” was launched at Nigeria Institute of International Affairs NIIA Victoria Island 2016, this is one of our strategic prevention and interventions in our collaboration with the NDLEA. We got support from some individuals and organisation, we printed and distributed to schools, we are still in need of support from the public and governments to publish and distribute to schools. We also produced a TV Commercial the cast are Celebrities, we tagged “BE SMART DON’T START” Anti-Drug Abuse Awareness Campaign project, with partner Nigezie Entertainment TV Channels to produced it.
How does your foundation go about rehabilitating drug addicts who are willing to reform?
First and foremost, we call them problematic drug users or people who use drugs, because we have to look at them as people first who have rights and we have to treat them as human beings because “addict” is too victimising.
The person must determine to be drug-free, because we cannot force any body into treatment center and scare tactics cannot solved the problem associated with drugs.
Drug detox cleanses the body of toxic substances and prepares the way for a new beginning, but counseling is where the real work of rehab takes place. Although there’s no magical “cure” for substance abuse, the benefits of counseling can help them overcome the destructive habits and thoughts that brought them to rehab in the first place. Over time, they will use the coping skills that any one acquire in one-on-one sessions or group therapy to maintain their sobriety and lead a healthy, positive life.
We offer services that include: Substance abuse counseling, Therapy, Detox, Individual and Group psychotherapy, and Group recovery meetings. If in the case of Medication-assisted treatment after necessary assessment, we do a referral because we are into strategic partnership with some great rehab centre.
Do you empower them after rehabilitation?
Yes, when the need be, but don’t forget there are also drug users in the work place who are already empowered. We trained them on life skills. There are possibilities of relapse, but how confident do they feel coping with cravings (urges)? Willpower is the opposite of addiction and is the greatest empowerment .Willpower is the capacity to act on one ’s long-term goals despite short-term distractions. You have to say to yourself, I am building a life of meaning and purpose. If so, I am building up reasons why I definitely would NOT want to return to drug use, because I would miss out on what has become so meaningful to me, it may be , family, career, sports etc.
Ultimately meaningful activity is my reason for living, family, and drug use becomes unthinkable. In a meaningful life I act from my values, pursuing goals important to me. I sum it up like this, managing your thoughts, feelings, behaviours and living a balanced life.
People who use drugs, have been so stigmatised for so long, that’s why we still have hidden users in the offices, families, schools etc, let’s show them love, we want people to come out and seek for help as sick person, that is one of the ways we can start addressing drug use prevalent in the society, just like the way HIV AIDS was tackled. We have to address drug use as public health centred approach, to remove societal stigmatisation and discrimination against drug users.
Any partnership with government and private institutions in this fight?
Yes, some are on discussion table. We partner NDLEA, state governments, other agencies of government, corporate bodies, religion organisations, entertainment industry, embassies, media, NGOs and few other organisations.
We partner Smart International, Sweden. It’s school intervention project on drugs and substance use prevention education. The students will be taken on the guidelines and rules of the project and they are expected to under go an intensive training on Drugs and Substance Abuse Prevention and life Skills and other related activities within 14weeks before completion and graduation. We are affiliated to some international organisations, like Europe Against Drug Abuse, World Federation Against Drug Abuse, Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs, New York NGO Committee on Drugs (NYNGOC).
I am the Focal Person, South West Zone – Community Intervention Network on Drugs (CIND) Nigeria. CIND is a coalition of CSOs, CBOs, NGOs and FBOs working drugs in Nigeria. I also belong to the West Africa Drug Policy Network and International Society of Substance Use Professionals(ISSUP).
What is the NDLEA Celebrity Drug Free and it’s advocacy against drug abuse about?
Celebrity Drug Free Club, is an advocacy arm of National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). The prestigious club was inaugurated May 22, 2014 by NDLEA former Chairman/Chief Executive, Alhaji Ahmadu Giade, the members are carefully selected public figure, vetted and approved by NDLEA leadership. I initiated the idea and I approached the leadership of NDLEA they bought into the idea, we then named it “NDLEA Celebrity Drug Free Club” and I was made the National Coordinator of the Club. I saw the importance of celebrities in the society as critical stakeholders, the power of their influence on young people because they looked up to them as role models and inspiration, we understood we cannot do this awareness alone and even the road was too lonely.
Every member of NDLEA Celebrity Drug Free Club are passionate advocate for Drug Demand Reduction especially among young people in Nigeria. We have carried out so many programs that touched lives and some of them are doing awareness on their own. They are A-celebrities who are determined to use their public status, voice for good, and an outspoken advocate against drug abuse. As drug abuse problem simply can’t be ignored any longer in Nigeria.
NDLEA has sole prerogative to withdraw membership who does not meet up the rules and regulations of the Club objectives.
Some of the primary objectives of NDLEA Celebrity Drug Free Club included serving as role model to colleagues and youth in the society, increasing understanding of the dangers posed by drugs and substance abuse with their platform, encouraging young people to resist any form of drug use and any one with substance abuse issues to break the silence and seek for help, support /promote youth oriented activities that promote healthy lifestyle in the society, advocacy campaign and Public Orientation stigmatisation against drug users, promoting positive youth oriented programs that provide alternative activities to drug involvement.
What are the major challenges you have battled in the course of your journey in fighting drug abuse?
Funding and society approach to drug users. Funding from Corporate organisations and High-net-worth individuals (HNWI). We are still hoping corporate bodies and individuals should fund drug abuse awareness campaign and funds improving the
capacity of civil society organisations, so that we can properly take the awareness campaign to schools, inner cities youth, communities and parents, so that parents and communities leaders can properly educate their walls and youths who are more vulnerable to drug abuse. There are so many benefits for corporate sponsorship, but the major one is a “Cause Related Marketing” for their brand, society will see the organisation as worthy company that contribute positively to the society, sincerely, it will raise their profit. Also it is time now, organisations see drug abuse as public health issues. Substance abuse constitutes socioeconomic and cultural threat in our society today. The time has come for corporate organisations to fund drug abuse awareness campaign, as there corporate social responsibility to the society. We can not all fold our hands and allow the society to decay.
Public Health-Based Approach: The society should start seeing drug abuse problems as public health issues and it need public health centred approach. Stressing that drug abuse is not a personal choice rather a public health issue, substance abuse is a call for a public health-based approach to addressing and discussing the importance of building awareness of substance abuse as a public health problem. Public health is the science of preventing disease and injury and promoting and protecting the health of populations and communities.
Punitive drug laws in Nigeria, As part of ongoing advocacy against abuse and stigimatisation, as CSOs working on drugs, we are also championing dialogue with stakeholders that brings together key state institutions in charge of the enforcement of the drug legislation, civil society activist, public health workers, human rights activist, media, lawyers and more importantly the most affected population to change the narrative about drug policy in Nigeria.
What is the Support, Don’t Punish Initiative about?
Support, Don’t Punish is a campaign to raise awareness about the physical and psychological consequences of stigmatising people facing substance use disorders. The campaign aims to emphasise that drug addiction is not a personal choice but a public health issue that needs to be addressed as such. Nevertheless many people with substance-related disorders experience social isolation, face stigma and discrimination. Stigma can have multiple impacts: as discrimination and stigimatisation cause more harm than one can imagine.
It is just a public health approach at the interest of drug users and curbing harm from the use of drugs, also provides practical ways to end war on drugs, promoting humane rehabilitation, which rules out heavy-crankdown approach on drug users.
“Drug use stigma can affect people in the workplace, it can affect their social relations and mental and physical health. Stigma can result in people delaying their decision to enter treatment, and can hinder access to regular or specific healthcare.
Stigma can trigger dangerous behaviours and it can further compound social disadvantages associated with substance abuse and it can trigger further use of drugs and other dangerous substance.
Any last words?
I am saying schools, parents and corporate organisations should be actively involved in the awareness campaign against drugs. The campaign against illicit drugs will be very effective and also get down to the grass root when stakeholders are involved.
I will not relent in creating awareness until people see substance use as a disease that needs early diagnosis and treatment. I am diligent and committed to this cause. Stay off drugs “BE SMART, DON’T START”.