“Buy a pill that will calm you down” – gateway to drug addiction

Last week I gave a general overview of the high cost of quick-fix solutions. I wrote about the story of Bontle* who resisted peer pressure to send her 8-year- old child to a tuckshop to buy painkillers for Bontle’s * post-traumatic stress-related headache.

The issue of children and adolescents using harmful drugs for stress relief is becoming increasingly common.

Children learn mainly by emulating what their parents do. The scary fact is that children are the ones who are usually be sent by parents to go and buy over-the-counter painkillers from a “semausu” or a tuckshop, “ngwanaka tsaya o ye go nthekela pilisi ya tlhogo hale, kena le stress” which means “go and buy me some painkillers my child, I have a splitting stress-related headache”. This is one of the most dangerous statements a child can hear from a parent. It teaches children to use painkillers to instantly relieve stress-related headache, and consequently learn to use stronger chemicals when their bodies start to build resistance against over-the-counter painkillers. 

Painkillers have become a stress management kit for many households. How then do children and adolescents escape the trap of chemical or drug dependency? The fact is, reliance on painkillers to instantly relieve post-traumatic stress-related headaches is a gateway to chemical dependency. The body starts to feel the “need” for drugs in order to feel normal, hence drug addiction or chemical dependency.


Painkiller addiction is also increasingly becoming a problem in different parts of the world. In Botswana, Dr Tarag in (Mmegi online, 16/01/14) reported that abuse of the previously over-the-counter codeine cough syrup increased rapidly in the past three years for its inexpensive accessibility. As a step to control the use of the drug, it is said to have been restricted to a prescription drug.What is seems worrisome though, is the way over-the-counter painkillers are displayed in many grocery stores suggests that they are in high demand and probably inappropriately consumed.

On that note, children need to be taught, from an early age that all medication should be obtained as prescription from health professionals to help control painkiller addiction among youth and consequently adults. 

Research shows that painkiller addiction has been a problem in South Africa for over 10 years so far. A study carried out in the Cape Province, provides evidence that over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription painkiller abuse placed a burden on the health and social services of the Western Cape (Myers, Siegfried & Parry, 2003).

Currently, codeine cough syrup is said to be the most abused over-the-counter drug in South Africa and Wiese (2015) warned that it should be used with caution.

Compared to most illegal drugs, over-the counter and prescription painkillers are gaining fast popularity not only because they are relatively inexpensive, but also for their legally easy accessibility.

 In America, studies prove that addiction to prescription painkillers, also called prescription opiates, is the fastest growing drug problem. According to Adams (2013), the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that approximately two million people, from as young as 12 years, in America alone were addicted to prescription painkillers. Adams (2013) further states that the epidemic of prescription and non-prescription painkiller addiction has resulted in nearly 16 000 deaths in America annually.

Regarding prescription painkiller addiction, research proves that indeed, it usually involves a previously drug-naïve patient who began with a legitimate pain issue, followed by a series of legitimate prescriptions for medical reasons, from physicians (Carise et al., 2009).

In the UK, Ford and Good (2007) reported that some of their patients with addictions to medication containing codeine, had started using the medication legitimately, but their use started escalating as they became tolerant to the codeine element. Codeine is said to have some mild to moderate pain relief, in addition to being a cough suppressant (Wiese, 2015).

Painkiller addiction is real and scary. Communities need painkiller education from the relevant health professionals to address the problem of self-prescribed medication.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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