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July 4, 2019

Being young in the ice age


July 4, 2019

The Islamabad High Court has summoned officials from several ministries to assist it with an inquiry into the use of narcotics including crystal methamphetamine, or ice, in schools across Islamabad.

While vague rumours about the issue had floated for some time, they became a part of the national agenda after then Interior Minister Shehryar Afridi stated that some 75 percent of female students and 45 percent of males attending schools in the federal capital were using ice. These figures, for a number of reasons, seem impossible to believe. The minister, who since then has been put in charge of the Ministry of Narcotics, has in his latest statement said that ‘A’ levels students use ice to assist them with studies.

It is difficult to say where the minister is obtaining his information, with many in the education sector questioning the statistics he is giving out. At least one ‘A’ levels student has suggested the drug problem could not be unique to those pursuing ‘A’ level education alone.

Crystal meth, manufactured artificially in laboratories, is a relatively expensive substance, with a former Islamabad chief of police pointing out that even in the most elite schools, children would not be able to afford the minimum sum of Rs5,000 or so it would take to buy a week’s supply. We also know that as far as enhancing focus for study goes, there are other far more easily available prescription drugs, including Ritalin, Adderall, and other similar substances that can be cheaply obtained by students. Past studies conducted for medical journals also suggest they are in use among college students and possibly school-going children as well.

There can also be little doubt that more common substances including hash, weed, and alcohol are all widely available and possibly in wider use than the ice Mr Afridi is so concerned about. Tobacco, which presents extreme hazards in terms of health, is also of course easy to obtain despite laws which bar its sale to those under the age of 18. Among the more elite, electronic cigarettes, vapes and sheesha have brought tobacco back into fashion.

It would help greatly if the minister disclosed how the statistics he has quoted have been collected. But no matter what level of scepticism has greeted the data, there can be no doubt that substance misuse does take place in schools, colleges, universities and other places where young people gather. This is hardly surprising given established patterns around the world. But it is something we need to look into and understand better.

The ease with which prescription drugs can still be purchased and sometimes misused or potential fatal party drugs like ecstasy obtained by those with enough money to do so is also alarming. This however is not unique to Pakistan. It is true around the world. The chief difference may be that in many countries, young people themselves, their parents and teachers are better educated about the substances in most common use. This usage varies across country, area, income group and age. Educating ourselves better is important simply on the grounds of safety and preventing dangerous situations from arising. There are many anecdotes about death caused by substance abuse.

Equally disturbing are the brief investigations into why students abuse drugs. The extent of the pressure we place on young persons and children, who may still be in their elementary years at school, to succeed is gargantuan. Each year, we hear new accounts of suicide by those who feel they have let down their parents by not achieving the numbers they had hoped for. Only days ago, a tenth grade pupil in the Rawalpindi area shot himself with a bore gun after he failed to pass his matriculation exams. He had already told neighbours in the weeks and days before his tragic death that he would commit suicide if he was unable to pass the exam.

There are many other such cases. Last year, a spate of suicides, linked to exam pressure, were reported from the Chitral area and other cases come in from everywhere in the country. Some involve children no more than 14 years old. Of course, others may go completely unreported, possibly covered up by families, for reasons we are all familiar with. Their emphasis on achievement and success, the comparison with peers or family members of a similar age, the stress on obtaining grades rather than on more abstract attributes such as being happy or caring about others and playing an active role in community has damaged us badly.

While it is true that pupils from more privileged backgrounds have more access to money and less value for education, possibly making them more able to obtain illegal substances, it is also true that on those from less privileged backgrounds, the weight of parental expectations and hopes is enormous. These children know their parents have invested huge proportions of their income by sending them to the best private schools they can manage and by paying for uniform, books, tuition and the other appendages of education that are necessary to sit in a classroom.

The court case in Islamabad continues. The testimony of the officials from the education, health and interior departments will be of interest. But what is crucial is to find a way to tackle the problem. To do so, we must increase awareness among all stakeholders. But it has been found that this alone is frequently insufficient. We need to reach into the minds of young people and determine what motivates them. There are solutions to problems such as peer pressure or culture within schools. The solutions are not easy and can be found only with support from teachers and other pupils.

A key example comes from Iceland. The country, beginning from the late 1990s, had the most acute drug and alcohol abuse problem amongst teenagers anywhere in Europe. Today, it has the lowest rate, with teenagers themselves stating in regularly conducted school surveys that they prefer not to use potentially dangerous substances and find they are happier when they steer clear of alcohol. To many Western countries, this is nothing short of a miracle. Few 16 or 17 year olds in the developed world would accept that they are aware of the need to stay away from banned substances and choose to do so of their own free will.

So how did Iceland create such a situation? Its model is now being studied across the world. Essentially, Iceland linked the issue with the psychological needs of young persons and studied their behaviour, adaption strategies and patterns of socialising. The country then put in place a programme which, with the help of teachers, volunteers and others, offered teens and younger children a huge range of after-school activities which could bring them enjoyment in various forms.

They also encouraged families to spend far more time together, to eat evening meals around the same table and put in place a curfew which still stands, banning people under 16 from being on the streets after 10pm unless they were returning from a supervised activity. The curfew for younger children came in at 8pm, even though at this time of the evening in northern Europe, it is still broad daylight in summers.

The impact has been dramatic and has come swiftly. Of course, it is not easy for us to endeavour the same given the hindrances we face in terms of knowledge, resources and commitment. But as a country whose population is made up 65 percent of persons aged under 25 years, we must act, and we must do so quickly. This would be more useful than putting out into the public statistics that are disputed and that cause a great deal of alarm without offering solutions.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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