Drugs treatment ignores darker side
Depression and substance abuse go together and sufferers need holistic treatment, reports Stephen Lunn
SAM has been clean and sober for six months. Now 20, he smoked his first cigarette and tried a bong on his second day of high school, aged 12. In his second week he gave Jim Beam a try.
Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder early in primary school, Sam says he felt persistently fuzzy and unable to concentrate as a boy.
He also felt emotionally immature at high school, and became isolated from others his own age.
‘‘ I ended up hanging around with the wrong people, older people and that led to drugs, too much alcohol, too much marijuana.’’
By 18, Sam, who does not want his surname published, was experiencing ‘‘ blackouts’’ at work, even when he hadn’t been drinking or using drugs.
He was worried enough to seek treatment, but the first program didn’t stick and when his parents took a month’s holiday leaving him alone in the house, the taste of freedom overwhelmed the weight of responsibility.
‘‘ I quit my job and got trashed for a month. I didn’t eat. I got really skinny and unhealthy.’’
A second program finally turned it around. ‘‘ Another user told me there was no point in coming to treatment half-stoned. You had to fully commit. He was coming off harder drugs than me, and I don’t know why, but it just got me going.’’
The constant, he says, were parents who supported him above and beyond the call. ‘‘ My mum is a one in a million. She has been there for me so many times when I didn’t deserve it.’’
Sam is hardly alone in fighting dual battles with some form of mental illness, often depression, and substance abuse. They go hand in hand for nearly 500,000 Australians, warns John Ryan, chief executive of the Association of Harm Minimisation Programs of Australia (Anex), yet are too often diagnosed and treated separately.
Around 75 per cent of people with alcohol and substance abuse problems may have a mental illness.
‘‘ It is an unfortunate tradition in the health system of providers only wanting to deal with areas they have expertise in and neglect other areas, for example, mental health and drug use. They need to treat people holistically,’’ Ryan says.
He was speaking at a conference in Melbourne looking to develop collaborative strategies to combat the combination of drug use and mental health.
Mental Health Council of Australia chief executive David Crosbie said the link, highlighted by the recent high profile case of rugby league star Andrew Johns, was ‘‘ not coincidental’’.
‘‘ The reality is that drug problems are a big part of our community and mental health problems are a big part of our community and the kind of case described by Andrew Johns where he had depression that led to heavy alcohol use and occasional ecstasy use to me is very common,’’ Crosbie says.
‘‘ What surprises me I suppose is that the community will focus almost exclusively on the illicit drug use and not on the mental health or the alcohol use, which are also very important factors for many people who have both conditions.’’
Commitment: Persisting with treatment for drugs is working for Sam