December 21, 2020

On the road to recovery

A day in the life of an addiction and mental health counsellor who uses his personal experience to support and advocate for young people dealing with substance abuse.

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6 min read

My name is Neil Jaitly and I am the project manager at the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) in Shillong, my hometown, as well as the president of the Meghalaya Users’ Forum.

I am also a recovering addict—having used substances for 16 years, I have now completed the 12-step recovery programme at Narcotics Anonymous, and this December I will complete 10 years of being clean.

I knew I could not help others if I did not recover myself.

At my rock bottom, I was homeless, hungry, unemployed, and desperate. This was the moment I realised I had to change myself to change my life. I knew I could not help others if I did not recover myself, so, while my recovery was slow, it was determined. And when I was clean, I knew I wanted to work with people who were still struggling with addiction.

In 2015, NACO gave me the opportunity to do just that. They employed me as an outreach worker and over a number of years I worked my way to the top. Today, I am a certified counsellor and project manager for their HIV/AIDS programme. Alongside this, I started the Meghalaya Users’ Forum, a community-based organisation focussed on helping young people dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.

As a project manager at NACO, I help manage more than 400 clients, all between the ages of 18 and 45. We provide them with free medical check-ups, medicines, and counselling. We also help them with detoxification and addiction recovery. At the forum on the other hand, I spend a lot of time advocating for the health and legal rights of the youth we work with, as well as helping them access their entitlements by assisting them with getting the right documents, ration cards and related facilities, information about free medication, and so on.

Through my personal experience and my work with these young boys and girls, I realise the importance of changing how we look at substance abuse—addiction needs to be looked as a mental health issue, and as such, recovering addicts need mental and emotional support. Another major issue we need to tackle is stigma. There is still so much stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, and mental ill-health. People still look at these as individual failings as opposed to issues that happen as a result of societal factors.

We had youngsters who took their own lives, an outcome which could have been entirely avoided.

The fallout that results from this point of view was seen during COVID-19. Since the lockdown was imposed abruptly, even healthcare workers weren’t able to provide their regular services or medication for the youth who were heavily dependent on them. As a result, we had youngsters who took their own lives, an outcome which could have been entirely avoided.

Today, we have boys and girls as young as 11 or 12 years who start injecting drugs, and most of them have never even smoked a cigarette before. Through my work, I want to help people understand why this happens, and what we can do to put an end to it.

Group of people siting in a circle - Neil Jaitly

I spend a lot of time advocating for the health and legal rights of the youth we work with, as well as helping them access their entitlements. | Picture courtesy: Neil Jaitly

2 AM: I get a call from the police about a boy who has been caught shoplifting and who they believe is a user. Since my work at the forum involves working with law enforcement, the police department, the anti-narcotics task force, and the District Child Protection Commissioner, I am usually the person they call when such things happen.

I then go to the station to intervene on behalf of the minor. We also have certain lawyers who work with us to help reach an understanding between all parties involved. Usually this means that if the minor who has been caught agrees to get treatment or join a programme, then there will be no legal proceedings against them.

Sometimes, I also receive calls directly from young boys and girls in the middle of the night. This is often because their families are physically abusive, or because the people in their locality harass them, or then because they get thrown out of their homes. In these instances, we help these children find a shelter home to stay in and provide them with food and medication.

Since these night time calls happen regularly, my phone is never switched off.

10 AM: I open the office and get busy with some paperwork. As a part of what we do at the forum, we are always fighting with people for more facilities, more programmes, and stronger networks, none of which are present for youth dealing with addiction and mental health in Meghalaya.

The lack of resources also means that we have limited funding. In fact, most of what the forum does, I pay for personally. This includes the travel expenses of our members, transport for young boys and girls to civil hospitals, and so on. However, the way I see it is, I was once that homeless boy, and I was given a second chance. So, if I have the ability, I would like to do the same for someone else.

Most of all, I would like to reduce the number of drug-related deaths that are taking place. And for this, we need more funding. For example, today, most of the hospitals in Shillong don’t have Naloxone—a drug that counteracts the effects of overdose. Since this is a hugely helpful drug that can be used to prevent many deaths, we wanted to make it more widely available. For this, we coordinated with Alliance India, who sponsored the drug for us, free of cost. Now I have the medication with me, and every time there is an emergency, I get a call from the police or ambulance service, and I am able to respond. In the future, I would like to raise funds to receive larger quantities of this drug so that all 108 ambulances have it and know how to administer it. 

12 PM: I, along with my team, coordinate with state AIDS Control Society and local antiretroviral therapy (ART) centres to ensure that our adolescents are able to receive the medicine and resources they need. This coordination became necessary due to the COVID-19 lockdown, during which students from Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, and some other states were all stranded here. Since these students were registered for ART in their hometowns, they weren’t able to access their medication here. When we saw this was the case, my co-founder and I began to coordinate with local centres and deliver medication to those who needed it the most.

2 PM: In the afternoon I visit the field, along with some outreach workers. The city has 10 drug hotspots in total, and we ensure that we visit each of them on a weekly basis. These visits are especially important because most of the boys and girls who live there do not have the money to come and seek services from us, because of which we take our information to them.

Our aim here is to help these youth leave this life behind.

In the field, most of the work we do is counselling. We talk about safer injecting practices, the importance of not sharing needles, and also promote Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST). Our aim here is to help these youth leave this life behind, and take steps towards treatment and care.

To this effect, we also have a local Narcotics Anonymous (NA) group, which a lot of these adolescents have joined. Sometimes members from NA accompany us as we go to various localities, meet addicts, as well as local leaders, and share information with them.

5 PM: As a part of our work at the forum, we conduct regular trainings with people working in law enforcement. During these sessions, we talk to police officers about addiction, the way addicts behave, what withdrawal looks like, and how they can approach and deal with addicts safely. These workshops were paused during COVID-19, but we are hoping to start them again soon, because they are integral to changing the behaviour of the police on the streets.

7 PM: My evenings are usually spent looking over the data from our programmes and planning our next steps. For example, tomorrow we have a programme in my office that aims to educate people on Hepatitis C, on Saturday we have another programme on human rights, and so on. These programmes are educational and we try to do as many of them as we can, but we are dependent on donations and funds to run them. Post this, my day usually ends at 9 PM.

Looking back on my work and life so far, I think there are a few things that I have learned. The first is the importance of a programme like Narcotics Anonymous, which is the reason I am clean, alive, and able to help others today. Across the world, programmes like NA are major players in the fight against addiction, and we need it to be the same in India as well, for which we need more funds. Additionally, I would like to emphasise that mental health and addiction are intertwined, and we need to do more to look after the mental health of people dealing with addiction. Lastly, I think it’s important that, when dealing with addicts, especially minors, we remember to support them, not punish them.

As told to IDR. 

Know more

  • Learn more about substance abuse in the North East.
  • Read this paper to understand the link between human rights, stigma, and drug use.
  • Understand the extent and proportion of substance use in India.
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Neil Jaitly-Image
Neil Jaitly

Neil Jaitly is the project manager at the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) in Shillong, and is the founder and president of the Meghalaya Users' Forum. Prior to working with NACO, he worked with several rehabilitation centres across the country. He is also a certified counsellor and uses his platform to advocate for health and legal rights for youth dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues.