Wilson Ighodalo: Addressing Substance Abuse as a Public Health Problem

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Wilson Ighodalo

Founder, Drug Salvation Foundation, Wilson Ighodalo, who also doubles as the National Coordinator, NDLEA Celebrity Drug Free Club Nigeria, is also a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Master Trainer on Sensitisation on Drug and Drug Prevention, Treatment and Care. Known for his passion in addressing substance abuse, Ighodalo in this interview with Chiemelie Ezeobi, strongly canvassed for public health approach to tackle substance abuse in Nigeria 


What is your take on the state of the health sector now? 

At present the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is being addressed, should be a ‘wakeup call’ to Nigeria. Public health approach is the single most important goal. Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.

 

What is your take on substance abuse as a public health challenge? 

There is need to reduce substance abuse to protect the health, safety, and quality of life for all, especially children. Millions of Nigerians struggle with a drug or alcohol problem. Almost 95 per cent of people with substance use problems are considered unaware of their problem. Few of those who recognise their problem, many have made an unsuccessful effort to obtain treatment. These estimates highlight the importance of increasing prevention efforts and improving access to treatment for substance abuse and co-occurring disorders.

 

What are its impact on lives? 

Substance abuse has a major impact on individuals, families, and communities. The effects of substance abuse are cumulative, significantly contributing to costly social, physical, mental, and public health problems. These problems include: teenage pregnancy, Human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), domestic violence, child abuse, motor vehicle crashes, physical fights, crime, Homicide and suicide. 

 

What was the impact of COVID-19 on children that are addicted to drugs? 

Due to the lock down because of COVID-19, some children could no longer have access to drugs and the withdrawal syndromes are becoming more evident and some parents are just beginning to realise that their kids are using drugs. This has made a lot of them panic. I hope they seek for help to allay their fears.

 

So what is substance abuse? 

Substance abuse refers to a set of related conditions associated with the consumption of mind- and behaviour-altering substances that have negative behavioral and health outcomes. Social attitudes and political and legal responses to the consumption of alcohol and illicit drugs make substance abuse one of the most complex public health issues. In addition to the considerable health implications, substance abuse has been a flash-point in the criminal justice system and a major focal point in discussions about social values: people argue over whether substance abuse is a disease with genetic and biological foundations or a matter of personal choice.

 

Advances in research have led to the development of evidence-based strategies to effectively address substance abuse. Improvements in brain-imaging technologies and the development of medications that assist in treatment have gradually shifted the research community’s perspective on substance abuse. There is now a deeper understanding of substance abuse as a disorder that develops in adolescence and, for some individuals, will develop into a chronic illness that will require lifelong monitoring and care.

Improved evaluation of community-level prevention has enhanced researchers’ understanding of environmental and social factors that contribute to the initiation and abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs, leading to a more sophisticated understanding of how to implement evidence-based strategies in specific social and cultural settings.

A stronger emphasis on evaluation has expanded evidence-based practices for drug and alcohol treatment. Improvements have focused on the development of better clinical interventions through research and increasing the skills and qualifications of treatment providers.

 

What are the emerging issues in substance abuse?

In recent years, the impact of substance and alcohol abuse has been notable across several areas, including the following: Adolescent abuse of prescription (Over The Counter OTC) drugs has continued to rise over the past five years. The recent survey found high rates of nonmedical use of the prescription pain relievers Tramadol and Codeine etc. It is believed that two factors have led to the increase in abuse. First, the availability of prescription drugs is increasing from many sources, including the family medicine cabinet, the Internet, and doctors. Second, many adolescents believe that prescription drugs are safer to take than street drugs.

In addition, as the federal government through Presidential Advisory Committee for the Elimination of Drug Abuse, (PACEDA) headed by Retired Brigadier-General Buba Marwa, should begin to implement health reform legislation, to focus attention on providing services for individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders, including new opportunities for access to and coverage of treatment and prevention services.

 

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 abuse 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 as a platform to share information and ideas about the problem of substance abuse. This include sharing ideas on how to communicate the message of zero tolerance to drug use. It also highlights 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 as 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 looks 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), thus I am an advertising practitioner.  

 

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. 

 

Why 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.

 

What about 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.