Parents and friends of teenage users are support groups' best weapons in the city's war on drugs. Caitlin Wong meets some of the foot soldiers
WONG MEI-SZE USED to frequent the Mongkok club where 13-year-old Chek Wai-yin hung out just before she died last month after taking a cocktail of hallucinogens. The 22-year-old was about the same age when she got her first taste of drugs - from friends at a disco.
'It's easy to get drugs at the Mongkok discos because dealers hang around them,' says Wong, now a student at Christian Zheng Cheng College on Lantau, which offers rehabilitation and secondary education for young addicts.
'It works both ways: youngsters who want drugs know to go to these places; and the discos organise so-called 'ladies' nights' to attract girls.'
While teenage drug abuse is worsening - arrests in the first half of the year have risen 34 per cent to 430 from 320 over the same period last year - Chek's death has helped focus minds on the issue. Some groups have called for mandatory counselling for young users. However, others say family support and schools are essential components in the fight against teenage drug abuse.
'Many teenagers take drugs to drown out the frustration and helplessness they feel over issues they can't handle. The abuse is often just a symptom of other problems, and isolated efforts against drug-taking are meaningless,' says Ivy Chan Kin-yi, who heads PS33, an anti-drug centre operated by the Hong Kong Christian Service.
'What we do is help [users] deal with the related problems together. This requires the support and active participation of families and schools to be effective.'
The Kely Support Group, which champions self-help and peer support, recruits young people and parents as counsellors to help teenagers deal with drug and alcohol abuse.
'We use our support network with volunteers who are young people and parents themselves to encourage people with problems to come forward, share their experiences and seek help,' says Kely executive director Jessie Yee Mean-foong. 'Our teenage volunteers can empathise with them which helps encourage them to confide their feelings and problems.'
Yee's volunteers, who deal mainly with expatriate Chinese teenagers, find that among alienated youngsters, the slide in to drug abuse often starts with alcohol.
Teens who turn to drink are encouraged to switch to soft drugs because they are less detectable and are not seen as addictive, says Emma (not her real name), an expatriate whose teenage son, David, fell into that trap.
'At first, it was just social doping - thrill seeking,' says David. 'Then it increased to once a week, and escalated to a stage where I would want to do it every day as long as I had the money.'
Now a volunteer with Kely, David says drug-taking is seen as a fashionable thing to do, fuelling its rapid spread among the teenagers he knows. Drugs are often easily accessible and some, such as marijuana or hashish, are cheap. What's more, he says, costs can be lowered by a group purchase.
'The problem in Hong Kong is that parents seem to have this false sense of security about their kids because this is such a safe city,' says Emma. 'Many don't know what their children are up to, and this is dangerous. Kids need to be encouraged to speak out about their problems. Parents need to spend more time with their kids, communicate with them, and involve them in their life. You have to be vigilant.'
Teenagers from ethnic minorities are often vulnerable because they feel excluded from mainstream society, even though they may have been born and raised in Hong Kong. 'Even if they speak fluent Cantonese, they still find themselves treated differently,' says Joseph Wong, an outreach worker with Christian Service.
'But when their parents have no Chinese and little English, the problem is worse because they don't have a channel to receive information, or seek support when problems arise. This only aggravates the exclusion, and makes it difficult to help the young people effectively, because it is hard to get their families involved.'
Eddie (not his real name) is among his successes. Born in Hong Kong, the 18-year-old picked up the habit of smoking marijuana after visiting relatives in India three years ago. He tried it at a party and continued on his return, often smoking in public places such as parks. 'Although I wasn't physically reliant on drugs, I was psychologically hooked and before I knew it I was taking more and more.
'My mother reacted very emotionally when she first learnt about my drug-taking, but she's stuck by me throughout. She even went to court with me, which I found very moving,' Eddie says. 'I have now cut off contact with all the people who took drugs with me. I'm determined to turn over a new leaf.'
To help youngsters stay out of trouble, Kely organises social activities, interest development and life-skills programmes. It also provides workshops for parents and education programmes for schools. While Kely is receiving increasing requests for assistance from schools, its volunteers hope more will join their ranks.
'We need to act together on this issue,' says Emma. 'It is important to catch the problems of our kids early using a supportive approach. The schools play a role in this, and could use voluntary groups like Kely as a link with parents and kids.'
At PS33, staff are finalising details on a new education programme which will be rolled out through 59 schools later this year to help youngsters realise how drugs damage their health.
Meanwhile, the centre organises parents' support groups and workshops to teach them how to face their children's problems and manage their own emotions.
'Parents and schools play an important role in helping to detect problems early. Parents, in particular, need to equip themselves well to provide effective support for their kids,' Chan says.
Wong can testify to that. An only child, she had a difficult relationship with her mother after her father died. One sampling of drugs led to another, and at the height of her addiction she was spending up to $400 a day on substances. To feed her growing habit, the dropout took odd jobs in shops and restaurants and, when those weren't enough, started dealing.
Wong managed to hide her problem from her mother until about two years ago, when she was picked up by police for possession. It was her mother's encouragement that led her to seek help from Zheng Sheng College, where she hopes to complete her secondary education. 'I owe her a lot,' she says.
Her schoolmate Leung Fu-wing, 17, was also struck by his parents' response when his drug use came to light after a gang fight two years ago. They had been too busy making a living to realise he had been hooked on ketamin and Ecstasy for nearly four years. By then, the teenager was feeling the side effects such as hallucinations, headaches and loss of memory. 'Although I was concerned, it was difficult to quit because once I had experienced the high I wanted to get the sensation again, especially when I was unhappy,' says Fu-wing, whose story is among those featured in an RTHK dramatised documentary series, Anti-Drug Files, being screened on TVB Jade.
'My mother said that if I persevered for just two years, I would earn back an entire life. That really struck me,' he says.
Like him, schoolmate Siu Yiu-hong's problem was exposed when he was arrested - for robbery. The 16-year-old was forced to turn to crime to feed his habit for the party drug. 'Although I'd been bad, my mother came to see immediately and offered her full support. That's when I realised I misunderstood her all the time. My elder brother, who I thought was rather cold, also turned out to really care.'
Amy (not her real name), a Chinese divorcee, finds knowledge of drugs useful in approaching her 15-year-old son, who was recently found to be using ketamin.
Her ex-husband has custody of their son, but is too busy to do more than give him a generous allowance. The boy refuses to seek help, and has since quit school. And without a more controlled environment, Amy fears her son will be more exposed to more bad influence.
'My son isn't very deep into drugs yet. When I first tried to discuss it, he was very reticent because he thought he could control his habit,' she says. 'But when I was able to point out some symptoms that I read about in PS33 literature, he was impressed. He's more willing to talk with me.
'I feel really guilty about my son. For now, I can only seek help from the social workers. I hope to use what I learn at the centre to prevent him from sliding deeper into the trap.
'Parents have ultimate responsibility over their children.'
Anti-Drug Files, TVB Jade, Sat, 7pm