Sangay is a recovering addict at the Compulsory Drug Treatment Centre (CDTC) in Serbithang. He tried drugs out of curiosity with friends when he was young. He started with marijuana and later got into tablets. 

“By the time I realised about my addiction, my relationship with everyone was crumbling.” 

Eight months ago, police arrested him. After 10 days detoxification process at Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), he was sent to compulsory treatment in the centre. Having completed the three-month treatment, he is an intern with CDTC because he has no family to go back to.

Ugyen, 17, hit rock-bottom when he was hospitalised due to drug overdose. He then checked himself into the Bhutan Institute of Wellbeing in Tshaluna. He completed his three months sobriety program last week. A high school dropout who tried drug at the age of twelve, he wants to finish his education and stay clean. 

In the same centre, Leki is one of the six women undergoing treatment for drug addiction. Two years ago, she first tried inhalants out of excitement with friends. After police apprehended her, she chose to undergo treatment and is determined to stay sober and ignore places that trigger temptations. 

This story is same. Peer pressure, experimental drug usage and family issues. The number needing help is on the rise. The facilities, rehabilitation centres, are limited.

The rehab centres have a very minimal intake capacity. There is also a need to enhance the capacity of counsellors. 

About 26 kilometres away from Thimphu town, in Tshaluna is a rehabilitation centre run by the Youth Development Fund (YDF). The Institute of Wellbeing takes in drug and alcohol addicts and poly users.

The institute, which started off as an interim drug treatment centre in Serbithang in 2009 was shifted to Tshaluna in 2017 to cater to the growing number of clients. It is the only rehab in the country that takes in both male and female clients.

As of today, the centre has 16 male and six female clients. Administration officer of YDF, Prakash Chhetri, said that they receive lot of requests as they are the only one taking in female clients. “But we cannot take them all in and compromise the quality of the services provided,” he said. 

However, the centre is planning to expand the infrastructure to be able to take in at least 20 female and 40 male clients. 

The centre has treated 131 male and 62 female clients since its establishment.

The CDTC at Serbithang was started in 2018 to take in drug addicts from different parts of the country. Director General of Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency (BNCA), Phuntsho Wangdi, said that the centre was established to meet the demand of judicial clients who required different kind of treatment from voluntary clients. 

Before the establishment of CDTC, judicial clients were referred to the rehab under YDF. “However, we realised judicial clients should be separated from voluntary clients because they require a different level of treatment,” he said.

The centre is currently treating 10 male clients, from all over the country, referred by the police.  

According to counsellor Yeshey Tshomo, even though the centre has about 40 beds, they cannot take in more clients given the size of the structure. “We once took in 25 clients but it was hard to meet the treatment demands,” she said. 

The centre has seven counsellors including a recovering addict. 

The centre also faces challenges of non-compliance by clients. “Since they are judicial clients, sent under compulsion, most of them don’t comply. This makes the treatment process harder,” said counsellor Sonam Yangchen. 

At Samzang Retreat Centre in Paro, managed by Chithuen Phendey Association, 17 drugs and alcohol clients are undergoing treatment. The centre charges a fee of Nu 6,000 per month. According to counsellor, Gempo Dorji, the fees are expenses for individual clients. 

Funding is the biggest challenge to the centres. Executive Director, Tshewang Tenzin said immediate help and treatment on demand is rarely available because of lack of fund and increasing help seekers.

He added that there is a stigma attached to addicts and rehabs in general. This makes generating fund to meet the clients’ needs difficult.  “People sympathise with cancer and kidney patients, but not people with addiction,” he said. “People are yet to accept addiction as a disease and end stigma attached to it.”

Tshewang Tenzin said that the ineffectiveness is also attributed to the lack of government support. 

The story of addiction is a continuous and a vicious cycle without ownership and collaboration among agencies, government, rehab centres, clients and the larger community. Recovering addicts said that addiction can never be fully treated but sobriety can be maintained by being careful. 

“It involves ignoring the environments which trigger drug and alcohol abuse,” they said. 

 Clients feel that the cultural acceptance of alcohol makes it difficult for recovering addicts once they are out of rehab centres. 

According to Pelzang, with bars available everywhere, it would be difficult to use the coping skills he learnt. “I think it is about time government stop issuing bar license and start constructing more rehabs,” he said.

Ugyen says that, no addict will listen to people’s advice on staying clean. “The realization that addiction is a disease and needs treatment before late should come from within,” he said.

Meanwhile Pelzang added that drug abusers are referred to rehabs only when addiction has become unmanageable. So, the chances of relapse cases are high. 

Psychiatrist with JDWNRH, Dr DK Nirola said that while the number of clients coming to detoxify at the hospital is increasing, not all of them get the help they need. 

In 2018 alone, the hospital detoxified 172 alcoholics and 83 drug addicts. With just three rehabs in the country with minimal intake capacity, the country faces serious shortage of rehab centres.

Most of the clients who have gone through the detoxification process are sent home,  which increases the chance of relapse. A few of them choose to go to rehabs in India,” he said. 

Esori Waglay and Choki Wangmo