Disturbing find: Average age for drug dependency in SA is just 12 years old!

drug counselling is critical

The data is sobering, instead of dolls and dinosaur toys, South Africa’s children aged 12 and younger are turning to drugs and alcohol, and sadly the numbers are rising.

According to the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG) 12 years is now the average age for drug dependency in our country, while 50% of South Africa’s teenagers also use alcohol.

Substance abuse among our children and young adults is growing, and while it is often accompanied by a devastating personal impact, it also has profound social ramifications on our communities too.

Compared to their peers, children who misuse substances – or have substance abusing caregivers – show increased rates of anxiety, depression, conduct problems and aggressive behaviours, as well as lower self-esteem and social skills. The more we understand about the negative effects of alcohol and drugs on child development, the more dire the need for interventions.

Substance abuse and social ills are usually present when there’s less hope in a community, particularly relating to youth unemployment. Substance abuse can result in changes in brain structure and increased risk of death from overdose and suicide as well as an increase in illegal activities.

While cannabis, alcohol and tobacco are the most commonly abused substances among kids, according to The SA National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey (YRBS) 15% of children admitted to using over-the-counter drugs to get high. Cough syrup, glue and ‘whoonga’ (a mixture of low-grade heroin and other additives) are also some of the most prevalent drugs used by children, especially those who live in vulnerable communities because they are cheap and easily accessible.

Research has shown that the key risk periods for drug abuse are during major transitions or other major upheavals in children’s lives.

The first big shift for children is when they enter school for the first time. Later, when they advance from primary school to high school, they often experience new academic and social situations. It is at this time – early adolescence – when children experience emotional, hormonal and physical changes, and are likely to experiment with drugs for the first time.

Caregivers and educators should pay more attention to children during these periods as this is the perfect time to start age-appropriate conversations about the risks of drug use.

The earlier the age of first use, the higher the risk of later addiction. Early interventions are vital as certain drugs can change the structure and inner workings of the brain. With repeated use, drugs alter a child’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist the urge to take the drug.

There are many signs that may indicate a child is having a problem with drugs. They might lose interest in things that they used to enjoy or start to isolate themselves. Teens’ grades may drop and they may start missing classes. They may be easily aggravated or appear irritable, sedated, or disheveled.

So what can we do?

Take advantage of “teachable moments” to help protect kids from drug use by giving them the facts before they’re in a risky situation. This can make them more careful about experimenting with drugs, or relying on friends for answers.

If this is not an option, encourage them to talk to a counselor, clinic or primary care doctor. It can be easier to have this conversation with a professional rather than a family member. These skilled specialists can help kids think about their drug exposure, understand the risk for addiction, and come up with a plan for change.

Keep close tabs on who your children’s friends are, and what they’re doing. Schools and parents can also help by finding new activities that will introduce children to new friends and fill up the after-school hours – prime time for high-risk behaviours.

For many substances however, it can be dangerous to stop the drug without medical intervention. A substance use problem is a chronic disease that requires lifestyle adjustments and long-term treatment.

With the right programme and good professional care, tweens and teens who have substance use disorders can go on to live healthy, productive lives.

Prevention programmes can help reduce substance use, particularly when focused on adolescents. Programmes using evidence-based strategies that involve parents within schools and organisations may discourage substance use by younger adults.

During the pandemic, it became evident that many young people were engaging in increasingly risky behaviours, with a dramatic escalation in substance use and sexual activity.

To address this, KILT introduced the Harm Reduction Programme into schools to raise awareness and to limit the harm that these behaviours can cause both personally and academically.

Launched earlier in 2022, so far 1 937 learners have been reached through 46 of our harm reduction sessions.

This programme is a whole classroom intervention, it is interactive and requires that the learners come up with solutions to mitigate the harmful behaviours that they are engaging in.

Each class has three sessions:

  • Session 1:  Identifying risk taking and harmful behaviours (group work).
  • Session 2:  Identifying solutions to reduce risk and harm (group work).
  • Session 3:  A personal assessment of oneself and a harm reduction action plan (individual work).


If you are seeking help for drug abuse​​ here is list of emergency numbers you can contact:

  • Ke Moja helpline WhatsApp: 087 163 2025.
  • The National Department of Social Development 24 hour Substance Abuse Helpline: 0800 12 13 14 and the SMS line: 32312.
  • Childline: 116
  • Knysna Drug and Alcohol Centre: Whatsapp  071 194 6255 or call 087 095 3128


Garden Route specific:

  • SAHARA (Smoking & Alcohol Harms Alleviation & Rehabilitation Association): 044 050 5085, or toll free 0800 12 13 14, or SMS 32312


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