Fighting substance abuse at the frontline

Duminda Wanigasekera

Psychiatry Division, Lunawa Hospital

Two public health crises coincided in the recent months – the coronavirus pandemic and the substance use disorder – causing deaths and destruction requiring healthcare workers to assume responsibility at the frontline. “I was bound to stay at home like many others. When a friend experienced a heart attack due to alcohol withdrawal, I was tormented with guilt for not being able to be of help to him,” says Duminda (39), a drug rehabilitation worker. “This is when I decided to step up for others who were undergoing acute withdrawal. This was a call for duty.”

He further went on to say, “It’s challenging for addicts to deal with the withdrawal symptoms from which they suffer tremendously. I have conducted addiction rehabilitation for a long time. I know how fatal it can be and what people face. They don’t care for legal consequences at this point and usually venture out trying to deal with the withdrawal. They need help.”

Duminda noticed a marked increase in addicts attending the hospital for pharmacological and psycho-emotional support. He took this opportunity to advise them about social distancing, hand hygiene and surface contamination through physical items like cannabis cigars and matchboxes. “Although it won’t be quantitatively effective, it is something that needs to be done. Most addicts needed personalised advice as they didn’t know why social distancing was important.” Teaching them was vital as they could spread the disease and start new clusters quickly.

Duminda worked hard and took many risks to be there for these vulnerable groups, however, his efforts aren’t always rewarded. “I live by a Hindu philosophy that says ‘do good without expecting anything in return’. Although only a small number of individuals are able to rehabilitate successfully, we can’t let that demotivate us. We have to keep moving forward.”