Yes to Life No to Drugs

Da: “Red Cross – Red Crescent”: the international magazine of the league of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; august-september 1987 – Rome.
” Yes to Life, No to Drugs” was the slogan of the International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking held under United Nations’ auspices in Vienna, Austria, last June. 3,000 delegates from more than 130 countries took part, including Dr. Massimo BARRA, (far right) of the Italian Red Cross, who represented the League. Ann NAEF visited the Italian Red Cross in Rome to see how Dr. Barra and the Society help tackle one of the world’s most serious and ever-growing social problems.

Half a dozen dogs amble around the unkempt grounds and run-down buildings of the Villa Maraini in eastern Rome, adding to its sleepy air. But the appearance is deceptive. The Villa is the centre of a city-wide network of services for drug addicts in the Italian capital.
Run by the Municipality of Rome in conjunction with the Italian Red Cross, it acts as a daily lifeline for hundreds of drug dependents and former addicts, most of them young people. Italy has almost a quarter of a million addicts, 20,000 of them in Rome.
Though the rise in abuse is tapering off after the explosion of the heroin market in the early 70’s, there is no sign the problem will go away. Dr. Massimo Barra, a physician from Rome, bulldozed the Villa into existence as an open therapy centre in 1976, in the teeth of opposition from a variety of sources and a crippling shortage of funds. Dr. Barra, a jovial “mover and shaker” who now heads the Italian Red Cross Volunteer Service, is under no illusion about the dimension of the drug problem.
“There’s a 33% rule of thumb,” he explains. “After ten years on heroin, 33% of users are dead, another 33% are still on drugs and 33% have shaken their habit.” The Villa’s shabbiness is part of its success. Its informal, relaxed style is a far cry from the officialdom of medical institutions that is so intimidating to people who are already strongly aware of their marginal status. The Villa is open from 9 a.m. to 9p.m. Only three rules apply: no drugs, no theft, no violence.
Its “clients” are drug dependents, past and present, among them prisoners on parole, but also professional people and celebrities who appreciate its discretion. Tramps, alcoholics and borderline psychotics also drop in off the streets. No-one is turned away.
The ramshackle buildings, located in a large park belonging to the Rome Branch of the Italian Red Cross, hide a surprising variety of services: medical care, group psychotherapy, individual counselling, social assistance, a workers’ co-operative and vocational training in an on-site printshop.
Its staff of three physicians, three psychologists and a social worker guide users towards other services of the integrated system of aid – a hospital-based detoxification centre and two long-stay residential centres. They are backed up by a committed group of volunteers, some of whom have a special qualification for the job – they are former drug users themselves.
Dr. Gabriele Mori, head of the Social Services of the Municipality of Rome, says the Villa and associated services aim at giving “a diversified response… our goal is to provide the right type of assistance to the right person”. The right time for starting the help is also crucial. Barra explains: “Very little can be done before the addict’s “honeymoon” with his drug is over.
It takes two or three years before disillusion sets in. We offer help only when the addict has decided to break free from his dependence.”


Many of the Villa’s clients come through its “hotline” telephone service. Manned by volunteers twelve hours a day, it answers some 200 calls a week. Many are emergencies – a family crisis or an overdose – requiring the despatch of an ambulance with a doctor or an Italian Red Cross first aid volunteer.
Hilarion (above), a regular helper with the phone service, says his eight years as an addict “make all the difference” in answering the appeals for advice and help. Now, with the transmission of AIDS established among needle-sharing intravenous drug users, the service has to cope with a new and devastating problem.
The hotline drew Andrea, a 25-year-old from Sardinia, to the Villa. He has been on heroin since he was 14. Now he is almost ready to start at a residential community, after the counselling period that tries to ensure applicants will benefit from this kind of treatment. Suddenly disaster has struck – in the form of a weekend drinking bout that probably represents a flight of panic from this major decision.
“Why did I do it? I’ve never drunk before”, he appeals to Marco Pasantino, one of the Italian Red Cross volunteers who work at the Villa. “My life was beautiful…now, no more!” His “fall from grace” and the despair that goes with it are potent indicators of the effort of will that a residenzial centre represents for a fragile personality.
With luck, the support system provided by the Villa will help him over the hurdle. Most addicts will turn first to the “Servizio Assistenza Tossicodipendenti” (aid service to drug dependents), an annex of San Camillo General Hospital.
Here Dr Vittorio Lelli heads a small staff unit, helping drug takers break their habit. “It can be done very quickly, in four or five days, or gradually over a period of weeks or months. It’s up to the patient, “says Lelli. The unit sees some 300 addicts a month. Metadone therapy (the prescribed dose of a heroin substitute) is the usual choice, but whatever they opt for, all are given a complete medical examination and psychological counselling.
To this basic support Lelli has added a programme of social activities: showing new films, sports events and excursions to the country and seaside, with staff and volunteers joining in. “We try to offer alternatives, another vision of life,” he explains. “Sometimes the only thing these people have in common is a heroin habit and a negative self-image. It helps them to see that they can mix with normal people.” (Segue alla pagina successiva >>)