An Inside Look At Malaysian Women And Recreational Drugs (Mental Health)

A clinical psychologist shares insights into why women turn to drugs and how it affects mental health.

In Part 3 of this Special Report, I catch up with clinical psychologist Vizla Kumaresan from Ara Damansara Medical Centre to find out how drug addiction affects a woman’s mental health.

READ: An Inside Look at Malaysian Women and Recreational Drugs (Part 1)

Turning to drugs may be a choice one makes, but often, addiction is caused by a deeper underlying issue. As we unfold the reasons behind drug addiction, it’s important to note that only with a strong support system and an effective rehabilitation programme can women find hope in overcoming drug abuse.

Eena: What makes someone turn to drugs? And why?

Vizla: “There are many reasons people start taking drugs. Sometimes, it’s because they have experienced some kind of traumatic event and need a means to cope with the emotional and psychological pain stemming from that experience.

Sometimes, it’s because they have a mental health problem or illness and use drugs as a way to cope with that. These mental health problems include mood disorders like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the range of anxiety problems and disorders.

Sometimes, it’s also about brain chemistry and personality styles. People with more risk-taking and thrill-seeking inclinations are more likely to take drugs, especially recreational drugs. People may take drugs to help them deal with highly stressful situations.

Then, there are people who take drugs to blend in or to conform to behaviours that are present in their environments. Some people who struggle with shyness may find that drugs help them deal with their inhibition. Hence, enabling them to socialize or to relax in public situations.  It’s difficult to pinpoint just one reason. Most times, it’s a combination of these factors.”

How does drug abuse affects a person’s mental health?

“Studies have shown that prolonged drug use can have adverse effects on mental health. The risk of developing mood disorders increases with the use of drugs. Indirect effects of drug use can also have adverse effects on mental health. For example, interpersonal relations deteriorate with drug use. This leads to loneliness and isolation, which then leads to mental health problems of their own. It becomes a pile-on effect.”

Are women more likely than men to turn to drugs?

“According to research, men are more likely to use almost all types of illicit drugs. Use of these drugs is more likely to result in emergency department visits or overdose deaths for men than women.”

Are women more susceptible to drug abuse?

“I find it hard to say. However, based on research, there are clear differences in the ways women use drugs when compared to men. For instance, women face unique issues when it comes to substance abuse based on biological and social factors. For example, drug interactions in women are different to that in men due to hormonal differences. Women use drugs in smaller amounts than men, and can experience the effects more strongly. And substance use in women tends to develop into addiction more quickly than in men.”

A reformed drug dealer and user shared with us that she got a ‘high’ from dealing drugs. Could you comments on this?

“Dealing drugs – procuring and selling – is against the law. Being able to do something and get away with it – especially if it’s for a long period – is risk-taking. Risk-taking is pleasurable. That’s why we go bungee jumping, or get elated when we ask that crush out on a date. You take a risk, and then to have it pay off is doubly pleasurable. I suspect that may be the case in this story.”

Does drug use at a young age lead to long-term mental health issues?

“Yes, because the brain is undergoing important development and drug use can affect that. A lot of mental health issues stem from brain-based problems, such as processing serotonin or dopamine, for example.”

Should drug abusers get help from psychologists, aside from being in rehab?

“Effective rehabilitation services must have a mental health professional involved. Key in dealing with addiction is working on the psychological and emotional issues that are around drug use. These can be like the ones mentioned above, or problems arising out of drug use, for example the deterioration of interpersonal relationships.”

Some people may self-medicate their mental illness issues with drugs. Do you see this often and how can we help curb this?

I believe the key is to reduce the stigma against mental health problems and the seeking of help for mental health issues.”

How can parents play a positive role in a drug abuser’s life?

Supportive parents and family members are key in recovery. This means using supportive language and not assigning guilt or shame on the recovering user. It will also be good for the family to reflect on ways of relating to each other to address abusive patterns. This can be physical, psychological or emotional abuse. If there are patterns of abuse in the family, the recovering person could relapse.”

What are the effects on a child of watching parents take drugs?

“It is damaging, of course. It can be counted as abuse. A child watching their parents take drugs is in itself abusive. The environment in which this happens makes it unsafe for the child and that is another kind of abuse.”

From your experience, do women recover better from drug abuse?

“I have no experience working with recovery. But, research shows that women may be more susceptible to craving and relapse, which affects recovery.”

What would you recommend friends or family do when they notice someone close involved in drug use?

“It would be best to get them help as soon as possible.”

At which point would someone know that their drug use has turned into an addiction?

“The standard is when one cannot function in everyday life without the use of substances. Then, it is a dependence or addiction issue.”