Calls to the National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) helpline multiplied nearly seven-fold within a year of the first case of the novel coronavirus infection in the country.
"In 2019 there were 52 calls, and in 2020 it spiralled to 361," Dr Kevin Goulbourne, director of mental health and substance abuse in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, told the Jamaica Observer Friday afternoon.
The helpline is primarily for individuals who are either struggling with substance abuse or who wish to seek help for addicts.
Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton noted that since the onset of the pandemic, several risk factors were quickly identified and efforts have been made to mitigate them.
"We have long realised that COVID and the response to COVID have had several side effects, including mental health and substance abuse. This is why we have targeted an intervention in this area and will continue to adjust to the specifics of the challenge," he told the Sunday Observer.
Last Thursday the Jamaica Observer reported that U-Matter — the chat service launched five months ago by the health and wellness ministry, in conjunction with The University of the West Indies and the United Nations Children's Fund as a lifeline to youth ravaged by COVID-19 — had revealed that many youngsters are struggling with suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, loneliness, lack of support, and performance anxiety.
Additionally, the NCDA's 2016 National Drug Use Prevalence Survey revealed that alcohol was the most commonly used substance with lifetime, annual and current prevalence of use being 74 per cent, 56 per cent, and 42 per cent.
The survey reported that 16 per cent of people between the ages of 12 and 65 were classified as "harmful alcohol drinkers" and 15 per cent as binge drinkers.
"Tobacco smoking, harmful alcohol use and the use of other illicit substances have long been recognised as factors that can negatively impact the physical, social, and economic well-being of societies," it read.
Prevalence estimates for lifetime, annual and current cannabis use were 28 per cent, 18 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively. The burden of cannabis use was disproportionately higher among males, with more than three times as many males as females practising the different forms of use.
For tobacco smoking, the number was disproportionately higher among males, with more than twice as many males as females.
In a just-released Jamaica Observer film documentary on the use of synthetic mood drug Molly, associate clinical psychologist Keisha Bowla-Hines had said that emphasis should be placed on helping youngsters to overcome addiction, as achieving that can be difficult.
"Recovering from drug use can be quite difficult, especially if the drug is one that is highly addictive, or in which the child becomes heavily dependent. It can be quite difficult in the absence of a strong support network; I cannot emphasise that enough. Social support is so important," said Bowla-Hines who is the coordinator of counselling services for the Liguanea region of the South East Regional Health Authority.
But even with officials warning against the use of Molly, and highlighting the debilitating health effects of the drug that has become increasingly popular among youth in recent time, a distributor of the illegal tablets, who spoke to the Sunday Observer on condition of anonymity, said if a drug prevalence survey was to be done today, Molly would head the list.
The man said that even after Observer documentary, titled Molly Predicament, last month — which he admitted has made him aware of some of the drug's dangers — users continue to demand it.
"I see that the documentary and the stories get whole heap of traction, but if anything it tek off with the schoolchildren, it spread like wild fire. Ah the same trend. People still a buy Molly and them a double up; people who used to buy two, now them a buy four. It a get more popular by the day," he told the Sunday Observer.
"There is a higher demand now. More people are reaching out, because everybody who never try it a seh dem waan try it and a ask me how I can get it to them and that type of thing," he said.
The man said, however, that he is not surprised by the continued demand for the pill that is sold for between $2,500 and $3,000.
"Me did expect it because the young people dem weh born from 2000 come up, dem run with what is trending. They don't back down from none of these things. Dem nuh business and that is the crowd. They are the ones who want it the most," he shared.
Experts say Molly, the street name for MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine), is a popular rave drug used at nightclubs and music festivals to alter mood and perception, and can lead to severe consequences on the heart and the brain.
The man said he is also aware that schoolchildren are reaching out to other dealers for the drug, but he is strongly opposed to selling it to children.
"I don't know anybody personally who is selling Molly to schoolchildren in uniform, but mi know seh it a happen. Mi nuh really support it. Mi have pickney weh a go school too, so mi don't want dah karma deh. Mi nah do that. Sometimes I am at parties and some little girls come to me and asking for Molly and I would say, 'Yu look like yu still a go school.' From mi say that, dem back up. But you know that dem a go get somebody else to buy it from, or get somebody else to buy it," he lamented.
Dr Mindi Fitz Henley, president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association, told the Sunday Observer that Jamaicans have to be mindful of some of the different substances that they are taking.
"They may just be trying to have a good time, but many of these substances are not regulated so you don't actually know what you're taking, and you're relying on someone else telling you about it. Unfortunately, for some people, they may have a reaction and even pass away because of some of the things that they try — even if it's just one time. Look at some of these athletes overseas who have taken a substance just one time and they are no longer with us," she argued.
Commenting on the Molly trend specifically, Fitz Henley stressed that it is important that people realise that there is a danger associated with it.
"If you're struggling and using it as a way of self-help or self-medication there are other ways to get help out here. We have the government mental health clinic which operates in the majority of all of our large health centres and we are there every day," she said.
There have been several initiatives implemented by the Government as a means of intervention and prevention of substance abuse among youth.
Among them are the Child Diversion Programme, led by the Ministry of Justice to steer young people away from delinquent behaviour by providing positive alternatives; Operation Lighthouse, which offers a holistic approach to substance abuse prevention by supporting families of at-risk youth; and 'Talk di Truth' – Mentorship Programme, which is geared towards marijuana use and awareness and was an offshoot of the amendments to the 2015 Dangerous Drugs Act.
"We have our teams that are ready and waiting to help you in any which way," said Fitz Henley. We know that persons are struggling for different reasons; and we know that COVID, for some persons, has exacerbated some of these feelings that they were having — whether it is with self-acceptance, depression, anxiety symptoms or even PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. We know that a lot of people are struggling right now."