A few drug addicts yearning for recovery prayed and encouraged one other to cease their addictions in a poorly lit hallway of a decrepit block of apartments in Zimbabwe’s Mbare slum. A platter of cookies was handed around.
Adrias Chidemba, 28, who used to sell fruits and vegetables on Harare’s streets and was saving to open a small kiosk, was one of those in the support group.
But then COVID-19 struck, and his hopes were wrecked by the months-long lockdown.
“To alleviate the tension, I turned to drugs and drink,” he claimed, adding that his parents “took me for a lunatic and booted me out of the house.”
According to health specialists, the epidemic has aggravated a mental health crisis in Zimbabwe caused by drug misuse. Authorities and activists blame it on job losses, extended school closures, and fear brought on by COVID-19. For many abusers, recovery is difficult due to a lack of support mechanisms such as cheap rehabilitation institutions.
Dr. Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe, described the situation as “catastrophic,” adding that substance abuse-related mental health cases are “skyrocketing.”
The bulk of persons coming through the mental ward at Sally Mugabe Hospital, one of the country’s largest, are drug users, according to Nelson Makore, the facility’s senior nursing officer.
“We have cases of schizophrenia, depression, bipolar illness, and so on… but drug abuse is currently at the top of the list.” It’s putting a strain on our employees; we’re not a rehabilitation institution,” he explained. In 2019, the hospital treated 150 people who were addicted to drugs or alcohol. In 2020, that number jumped to 850, and it continued to climb in 2021.
The situation in Zimbabwe looks to be a worldwide one.
“Early research studies conducted in different parts of the world appear to point to relatively high rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and non-specific psychological distress during the pandemic,” said WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Use unit head Dr. Mark van Ommeren.
According to reports, the pandemic resulted in an increase in alcohol-related mortality, and studies in a few nations show “an increase in the use of cannabis and psychotropic drugs with sedative effects.”
Zimbabwean doctors are acquainted with the hazards associated with marijuana usage, but more individuals are resorting to stronger drugs like heroin, cocaine, and crystal methamphetamine to forget about the pandemic, according to Makore.
Because there are few government-funded recovery institutions, many substance abusers rely on support groups that gather in seedy locations where drug dens thrive.
“This is their only hope,” says the narrator. “The absence of substandard rehabilitation clinics is killing us,” said Kudakwashe Madzima, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network’s Mbare township chapter. While the support group meeting in Mbare was in progress, several other kids around smoked marijuana.
Madzima said he used to get two distress calls a week before the epidemic, but now he gets up to five a day. Syringes and cough medication bottles litter the township, indicating widespread misuse, according to Madzima, a former addict who had to fly to South Africa for treatment.
People lucky enough to get a seat at Tirivanhu Therapeutic Center, a mental health rehabilitation center approximately 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of Harare, labor in the garden, a tree nursery, and with animals before partaking in counseling and athletic activities in the afternoon.
According to Timothy Sithole, a programs officer with the Zimbabwe National Association for Mental Health, which manages the institution, offices have been transformed into an accommodation wing owing to increased demand.
He expressed his sadness by saying, “It’s terribly awful.” “At any given moment, we can only accommodate 17 individuals.” So there’s a backlog, a lengthy list of individuals eager to have their relatives admitted here, particularly after the epidemic since substance misuse is on the rise,” Sithole explained.
The institution charges $30 per month, but accepts certain “very destitute patients” for free and receives government funding. According to Sithole, some private facilities charge 10 to 20 times more than public centers, making them unaffordable for many. Those who do not receive assistance “become squandered lives” and wind up on the streets, he warned.
While Zimbabwe looks for answers, some people are already too addicted to give up.
“This keeps me sane,” Rutendo Dzapasi, 21, said as he sipped codeine-laced cough syrup.
A guy cautiously placed a crystal methamphetamine fragment onto a portion of a curved fluorescent tube next to her in a dark room in Mbare township. He heated the tube to decrystallize the meth and then consumed the vapor after hastily scouring the room for a cigarette lighter.
He sighed, “Problem solved.”