Secrecy shrouding female drug abuse hampers treatment, say doctors

'Most people do not accept that Emirati men can be drug addicts, let alone local women.'

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - APRIL 14:  Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist from the HR Institute, pictured in her home in the Dubai Marina in Dubai on April 14, 2010.  (Randi Sokoloff / The National)  For online story by Megan Detrie

ABU DHABI // A culture of secrecy and shame surrounding drug abuse by women has left medical professionals unsure about the extent of the problem and ill-equipped to treat it, experts say. According to Dr Fatima al Hamedi, a psychologist at the National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) in Abu Dhabi, most people do not accept that Emirati men can be drug addicts, let alone local women. "Women are considered diamonds that should be kept safe and many ideas jump to mind - either they were poorly raised or that she's misbehaved," said Dr al Hamedi.

Cultural factors may mask the true extent of the problem, as women are often protected by their families, which may prevent them from independently seeking treatment. Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist who works with substance abuse at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai, said: "Women come [to their families] and say, 'I'm not feeling well' or 'my head hurts' or 'I feel sad'. They will make up something and that will get them in the door to me, then they'll say, 'This is the real issue'."

Women might be more prone to abuse prescription drugs because of their easy availability and social acceptability, Dr Afridi said. "There needs to be a lot of education. Just because the doctor gives [medication] to you, doesn't mean you can't abuse it," she said. Women with drug problems have few places to turn, doctors say. The NRC, which only treats Emirati males, refers the few women who contact the centre - mostly about the abuse of prescription medication - to Sheikh Khalifa Medical City's detoxification unit. But the situation is set to improve.

By early next year, the NRC plans to open a 10-bed inpatient unit for women, as well as offer outpatient care, staffed only by women. The female unit is part of a larger expansion plan that will see a new 200-bed centre in Mohammed Bin Zayed City by 2015. The NRC will also open a youth unit, as well as a criminal justice programme, by early next year. Because there are no detailed statistics on drug abuse, the expansion was based on anecdotal evidence of need, such as police findings and patients' accounts of substance abuse among women.

"There is no specific data to say we have a problem, and this is the magnitude of the problem," said Dr Hamad al Ghaferi, the executive director of the NRC. The NRC is in the process of signing an agreement with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to conduct a survey that will assess the magnitude of all drug misuse in the UAE. Fluctuations in substance misuse among the population needs to be monitored to identify at-risk groups and develop effective prevention strategies, said Sabrina Tahboub-Schulte, an adjunct professor in psychology at the University of Sharjah.