By Lizzie Ioannidou
Special treatment centre for minors who until now have been lumped with adults
A hardened drug user at just 19, Marios Anastasiou has spent months in both rehab and prison, mostly for burglaries he committed to fund his dangerous addiction after his despairing parents stopped giving him money.
Repeated counselling sessions had all failed to help Anastasiou (not his real name), a once promising pupil who was expelled from school.
Now there is hope for him and his family, in the form of a new government-funded rehabilitation centre specifically targeted at young substance abusers and addicts.
“The importance of such a residential drug treatment centre is that at this age it’s uncontrollable, and they don’t understand how bad they’re getting,” Anastasiou’s father told the Sunday Mail.
“They say ‘It’s my life and stay out of it,’ so you can’t deal with it by merely suggesting they should seek help. There needs to be a way to have things like this imposed.”
Until now, young drug addicts have been lumped with adults when it came to treatment programmes, primarily at the Ayia Skepi rehabilitation centre. While it offers a successful programme, it is not suitable for minors.
It was only after years of mounting pressure on the government to provide solutions to youth substance abuse and addictions, that the council of ministers last week gave the green light for a pilot residential drug addiction treatment centre for minors, the first of its kind on the island.
Set to open its doors within the month, the centre will be hosted in an existing building in Latsia, Nicosia, and will be staffed by teachers in cooperation with the education ministry, and therapists from the Ayia Skepi therapeutic community, whose head, Tina Pavlou, will be coordinating operations.
Substance abusers between the ages of 13 and 19 are eligible for the treatment programme, which will keep patients enclosed within the premises for between six and nine months.
Minors can be admitted to the centre following the request of a parent; or following the request of the state and the welfare services in cases of minors in the system without family support; or by request of the police or a court following the arrest of a minor and charges relating to drug offences.
To ward off requests by overdramatic parents who find their child had a joint or two and deduce that their child’s gone off the rails and needs strict intervention, space will be limited to 12-15 rooms, and only serious cases will be admitted.
The centre will offer a philosophy tailored to youth drug addiction, differentiating itself from other therapeutic programmes offered by the state, such as the counselling-based treatments offered in Nicosia’s Perseas and Limassol’s Promitheas, and the confined community treatment of Ayia Skepi, based on physical labour and isolated remoteness.
The location of the new centre attests to its desire to keep the young addicts undergoing treatment close to society and to their loved ones.
They will follow personalised academic classes as well as music, art and sport classes. The programme will also include personal, group and family psychotherapy sessions.
The centre will be fully funded by the state, as part of the budget of the national addiction authority. The annual budget for the operation of the treatment centre has been set at €600,000, while an additional €70,000 will be provided during its first year of operation for the purchase of equipment.
While a law is already in place allowing courts to sentence youths to residential treatment programmes, the absence of such centres meant they would either be placed in prison, where access to drugs remains a possibility, or they would be ordered to follow counselling programmes, which are often ineffective.
“The counselling programme of Perseas did nothing for my son,” said Anastasiou’s father. His son’s teenage years were consumed by hard drugs, going in and out of prison, and growing gradually mentally deranged until he found himself in “Lalaland”.
“The thing is that most underage drug users are just bored,” said his father. “It’s not so much a matter of addiction, it’s more the physical and psychological problems that can come out of heavy drug use, and the mental effects of a screwed up sleeping pattern.”
The 19-year-old would lie, his father said, and would take anything he could from his parents before resorting in to burglaries, to sustain his drug habit.
Anastasiou’s father resorted to sending his son to Greece, where such residential treatments existed, “but he went off the rails again”.
The 19-year-old was eventually accepted into Ayia Skepi last year, and will be moving into the new centre in Nicosia once it opens.
The new centre will differ from the way things are done in Ayia Skepi.
“At Ayia Skepi there’s a bootcamp-like regime, where you wake up really early and get to work. You can’t talk to anyone other than those designated by a system that the place has, and you’re allowed one phone call a week and only after three months of being in there, but they made an exception for my son because he was the only minor.”
In the new centre, “parents and loved ones are going to be more involved in the minor’s recovery, since there’s less emphasis on work and more on therapy and family.”
MPs and the national addictions authority have for years been calling out the figures which highlight the need for better methodologies to tackle youth addictions and delinquencies.
In 2015, a European survey conducted in schools regarding alcohol and drug consumption, Espad, showed that cannabis use by Cypriot students was at 16 per cent, more than double the European average of 7 per cent.
A local study was conducted on 1,100 students in November-December 2018 by the centre for educational research and evaluation (Keea), found that results on cannabis use remained at the same levels as those shown by the Espad survey of 2015.
The new treatment centre for minors will deal with youth addictions that go beyond cannabis, tackling additional addictive substances such as cocaine, crystal meth, and OxyContin.
Figures by the national addictions’ authority show that in 2017, the service was sought to assist in 14 cases of youths struggling with drugs, while the figure had risen to 22 youths in 2018.
At the end of January, the House education committee heard from the deputy chief of the drug squad, Stelios Sergides, that a total of 70 students were arrested in 2018 in connection to drugs, 68 of whom were users between the ages of 15-18 who were then registered into treatment programmes. The other two were dealers.
While the new centre will come to fill an important gap in the treatment of youth addictions, the president of the national addictions’ authority, Dr Chrysanthos Georgiou, said last month that still more is required in terms of researching and preventing youth addictions, towards which only 1.7 per cent of the relevant budget is being allocated.