Meet Addiction Therapist Janny Mwarangu: ‘Unemployment is Fueling Drug Abuse’

July 10, 2023

Janny Mwarangu lost both her father and brother to alcoholism. Today, she is a passionate addiction therapist who is providing psychological help to substance addicts.

Mwarangu shares her journey and gives insight into how the government should deal with the drug menace.

What inspired you to become an addiction therapist?

During my formative years, I grew up in a family where I witnessed my dad struggle with alcoholism. He was a respected clinical officer but alcoholism took a toll on him until he drank himself into an early grave.

Growing up in Kiamaragwe village, we were surrounded by many people who used to manufacture illicit brews and I couldn’t understand why many young and old people loved drinking these dirty-looking drinks.

Later on, I left my village and went to college and found out that drinking alcohol was so rampant not only in my village. In 2011, I visited a friend who used to work in a rehabilitation centre along Kiambu Road. It is during my visit that I got to interact with one therapist by the name of Ken.

From his explanation, I got really interested to learn more about addiction and recovery. I was a frequent visitor to that rehab and so I asked Ken how I could become a therapist too.

He directed me to Support for Addictions Prevention and Treatment in Africa (SAPTA Kenya), along Ngong Road then. In 2015, I lost my brother Nicholas too and this was a wake-up call for me. I really wanted to understand addiction deeply. In 2019, I joined SAPTA Kenya offices now in Corner House, and pursued a Diploma in Chemical Dependency and Addiction Counseling

Approximately how many cases have you dealt with and what was the most challenging one? 

I have dealt with very many cases considering that I operate in informal settlements. However, there is this particular case of a Form 3 boy who was smoking bhang. He was a straight A student but he had dropped to C- (Minus).

During our session, I realised that there were very many factors that contributed to his behaviour. His dad had passed away early and his mother was left to cater for him and his three siblings. Life was very difficult and to numb his psychological pain, he turned to drugs.

At one point, I brought in his mother in one of the sessions and we had to team up to help the boy. He stopped taking bhang and managed to graduate from high school with a B (Plain) and he is now at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.

What does a workday for an addiction therapist look like?

Being an addiction therapist, flexibility is a key factor. Since I do other things during the weekdays, I get to see my clients on Saturdays. My day starts at 9 am and ends at 4.30/5 pm. I do assessments, drawing of care plans, contracting, evaluations and group therapy. I also collaborate with other counsellors for referral purposes since I am not able to meet all the clients’ needs.

Despite the problems caused by drugs and substances, illicit drugs and substances are still rampart in both urban and rural centres, what in your view should the government do to eradicate this? 

The problem of drugs and substance use is deeper than many people think.  For us in this field, we have to face these facts every day. The government needs to deal with the root causes and not the symptoms. We all need to understand why people indulge in drugs and substance use and address this directly:

a) Offering education on drug addiction in schools as part of learning.

b) Parents to take a role in talking to their children about the dangers of abusing drugs.

c) In urban centres, most young people between 20 to 30 years lack jobs hence; find themselves in drugs and, therefore, the government should create jobs or social amenities where these young generations may indulge their skills and talents.

Even with rehabilitation, some don’t get cured of substance addiction, how do you address such a situation? 

We need to understand the process of addiction and how addiction alters the normal brain function and with this in mind, we will accept the fact that not everyone will live a life free of drugs and substances. Some will still relapse but the majority are able to pull through and live a normal life.

The factors that contribute to relapse are the environment where one lives, the support system and the willingness of an individual to change. I choose to celebrate those who I have helped pull through and accept the fact that not everyone who goes to the hospital gets cured. We lose some along the way and we save some too.

Recent reports by NACADA show that the number of drug and substance users in Kenya has increased significantly over the past few years. What do you think is fueling this phenomenon?

This is true and there are very many factors that have contributed ranging from individual to societal factors as explained below:-

a). Stress levels have really gone high due to the fact that the living standards have become too expensive for many to cope with.

b)   Joblessness – Looking back to the year 2020 when Covid-19 hit, many people lost their jobs leading to increased stress levels and as a coping mechanism, many people turned to drugs and substance use

c). Unresolved childhood traumas which lead to difficulties with social interaction. In a bid to gain courage and interact with peers, one tends to use substances. Unresolved childhood trauma leads to low self-esteem. In order to boost one’s self-esteem, many people use drugs and substances.

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