HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Tucked in a corner of a dimly-lit hallway of a rundown block of flats in Zimbabwe’s Mbare township, a few drug users desperate for recovery prayed and encouraged each other to reduce their habits. They passed around a plate of cookies.
Among those in the support group was Adrias Chidemba, 28, who used to sell fruits and vegetables on Harare's streets and was saving to set up a small kiosk.
But then COVID-19 hit and the months-long lockdown shattered his dreams.
“I took to drugs and alcohol to numb the stress,” he said, adding that his parents “took me as a madman and kicked me out of the house.”
The pandemic has exacerbated a mental health crisis in Zimbabwe driven by substance abuse, say health professionals. Authorities and campaigners attribute it to loss of employment, prolonged school closures and anxiety resulting from COVID-19. Lack of support systems such as affordable rehabilitation centers makes recovery difficult for many abusers.
“It’s catastrophic,” said Dr. Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe, who said substance abuse-related mental health cases are “skyrocketing.”
At Sally Mugabe Hospital, one of the country’s biggest, the majority of people passing through the psychiatric unit are substance users, said Nelson Makore, the unit's senior nursing officer.
“We have cases of schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorders … but drug use at the moment is topping the list. It is straining our members of staff, as a hospital we are not a rehabilitation center,” he said. In 2019, the hospital attended to 150 substance abuse cases. That number spiked to 850 in 2020 and continued to rise in 2021.
Zimbabwe's crisis appears to be part of a global problem.
“Early research studies conducted in different regions of the world appear to point to relatively high rates of symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and non-specific psychological distress during the pandemic,” said Dr. Mark van Ommeren, the unit head of WHO's Department of Mental Health and Substance Use.
Reports suggest increases in alcohol-related deaths during the pandemic and studies in a few countries indicate "an increase in the use of cannabis and psychoactive substances with sedative effects.”
Zimbabwean health professionals are familiar with problems from marijuana use but now see more people turning to harder drugs such as heroin, cocaine and crystal methamphetamine to forget pandemic pressures, said Makore.
With few government rehabilitation centers, many substance abusers rely on support groups that meet in dingy places where drug dens often flourish nearby.
“This support group is their only hope. The lack of rehabilitation centers for the poor is killing us,” said Kudakwashe Madzima, leader of the Mbare township chapter of the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network. Even as the support group’s meeting was underway in Mbare, some other youths puffed marijuana nearby.
Before the pandemic, Madzima said he received an average of two distress calls a week, now he can get up to five a day. Syringes and bottles of cough medicine litter the township, a sign of widespread abuse, said Madzima, a former addict who had to travel to South Africa for treatment at a rehabilitation center.
At Tirivanhu Therapeutic Center, a mental health rehabilitation center about 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of the capital, Harare, people fortunate enough to find a place there work in the garden, a tree nursery and with livestock before engaging in counseling and sporting sessions in the afternoon.
Offices have been converted into an accommodation wing due to increasing demand, said Timothy Sithole, a programs officer with the Zimbabwe National Association for Mental Health, which runs the home.
“It’s really sad,” he said. “We only have a capacity of 17 people at a time. So there is a backlog, a long list of people willing to have their relatives admitted here especially after the pandemic because we have a rise in substance abuse,” said Sithole.
The center charges $30 a month but also takes in some “really desperate cases” for free and receives some government support. Some private centers can charge between 10 to 20 times more, making them unaffordable to many, said Sithole. Some who fail to get support “become wasted lives” and end up roaming the streets, he said.
As Zimbabwe searches for answers, some are already too hooked to consider quitting.
“This keeps me sane,” said 21-year-old Rutendo Dzapasi, sipping a cough syrup containing codeine.
Next to her in a dark room in Mbare township, a man delicately put a crystal methamphetamine fragment into a piece of a curved fluorescent tube. After frantically searching the room to find a cigarette lighter he heated the tube to decrystallize the meth and then inhaled the vapor.
“Problem solved,” he sighed.