By Grant J Everett
Thanks to RichmondPRA I was able to attend the 18th TheMHS Summer Forum, a two day event held at the Mercure Hotel. Methamphetamine use was the core topic, and lots of professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers and drug & alcohol workers presented on many relevant issues surrounding ice use.
Day one started on an inspiring note with our first speaker, Jack Nagle, sharing the first-hand realities of severe ice dependence. Jack went into great depth about the toll that meth exacts on its users, a price that is often paid in psychosis and thoughts of suicide. Jack highlighted how vital it was to constantly find sources of meaning in life while he kicked the habit: although the pain of withdrawal is hard enough on its own, without some kind of goal or “anchor” in life it’s harder still. Booting ice addiction meant that Jack had to relearn a lot of basic life skills, such as being able to budget his money, maintaining his hygiene and even the most basic of social skills. Jack described how ice addiction had reduced him to an “animal” level, and the long struggle to reclaim his humanity. Jack continues to find meaning in life, and has remained clean for years.
Next up was Nicole Lee, an Associate Professor at the National Drug Research Institute. A practicing psychologist with 25 years’ experience in the substance use and mental health fields, Nicole stated that the current ice situation is a “Clayton’s” epidemic: the epidemic you have when you aren’t having an epidemic. Nicole reported that the ice situation has been sensationalised by the media, and that the levels of methamphetamine use among the general population has remained pretty constant for two decades. However, ice is now cheaper than speed, so plenty of existing speed users have switched their poison of choice for financial reasons, and that also means that existing ice users can afford to take more of the drug than before.
Nicole joked that we certainly have a MEDIA epidemic! In response to this, I put my hand up during question time and asked her if she’d ever seen a news story that got the ice situation wrong. Her response?
Stephen Ling, a member of Drug and Alcohol Nurses of Australasia, told us that between 2009 and 2014 there was a sevenfold increase of Emergency Department presentations related to ice use, as well as 110 ice-related mortalities just in 2011. Three major factors that contribute to these deaths include how ice users tend to suffer more traumatic injuries than the general population, have a higher-than-average suicide rate, and that mixing recreational drugs (something ice users are quite likely to do) can have catastrophic reactions.
Dr Nicola Newton and Dr Lexine Stapinski from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre deal with early intervention in substance abuse among our youth. As the human brain doesn’t mature until the age of 24, hitting teenage grey matter with recreational chemicals is especially bad news. They shared a lot of good news about the next generation, though, such as how kids are starting to drink later and later in life, and that the way they perceive drug use is growing increasingly negative. Nicola and Lexine also shared some numbers that show today’s teens are less indulgent in drugs, alcohol and sex than past generations. As a few examples, it turns out that teens between 14 and 19 use way less ecstasy than the 20 to 29 set, and that not only do the vast majority of teenagers report having no interest in seeking meth, they wouldn’t be interested even if it was on offer. Are we actually learning our lesson?
If somebody knows about the power that the media has in shifting stigma around, it’s Paul Dillon, the Director and founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia. Paul is passionate about keeping the community up-to-date on alcohol and drug information, and he despises the current media situation. Paul has a bee in his bonnet when it comes to the media’s treatment of the ice situation, and he didn’t mince words on the subject. For instance: Paul had heard about how Shepparton is meant to be the ice central of Victoria, but when he personally visited some schools in the area and spoke with assorted teachers and principals, they all reported the same thing: no students had ever come to school high on ice, and no students had ever been busted for being in possession of the drug. Paul said he doesn’t bother talking to reporters about ice anymore, as his facts just get ignored if they aren’t sensational or terrifying, and that many of his colleagues have experienced the exact same thing. He went on to say that our fear of ice is a worse epidemic than ice itself, and that what we’re currently experiencing isn’t “the worst drug scourge ever.“
Two things that especially irk Paul is when the media depict an extreme situation (something of an almost nonexistent rarity) and make it out to be common, or when they pass on an urban legend as truth. When it comes to urban legends, a good example is the story you might have heard about dealers lacing their pot with methamphetamine. Paul stressed that basic numbers don’t support this story, as ice is $800 a gram while pot is only $20 a gram. Not only has this rumour been debunked for ages, but according to Paul it’s just plain stupid. He also mentioned that infamous story about an ice user eating his own eyes, which never actually happened.
I’d especially like to thank Jack Nagle and Keenan Mundine for sharing their powerful life experiences (check out Keenan’s work with the Kool Kids Club on page 28). Your stories were inspirational, and we wish both of you luck in staying on the straight and narrow.