Health workers say there is an urgent need to discuss a new approach to drugs.

It’s never easy when someone you love becomes dependent on a drug – but in the case of ice, there can be an extra problem: the suspicion and paranoia that can trigger violence. What do you do when your once high-achieving, sports-loving son breaks your window, injures the family dog and digs holes in the back garden, convinced there are bodies buried there? 

These are experiences that Debbie, a Victorian parent of five adult children, has lived with since her son developed a dependence on ice 18 months ago. Her focus now is on helping him get treatment – and that’s not simple. Although he’s been admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit during episodes of drug-induced psychosis, the hospital tackles only the psychosis, not his drug dependence. Once he’s recovered from the psychosis, he’s discharged and the cycle of using and chaotic behaviour starts again.   

“When he stops using for a week or so there’s this window period when he knows he needs help and wants his old life back, but there’s never a place available in a public rehab at the time. There’s always a waiting list,” Debbie says.

 “We need more money spent on treatment for drug dependence. If he had a disease like cancer, he’d have the best of treatment.”

Family Drug Support, an organisation that helps families and friends of people with a drug dependency, says phone calls about ice to its 24-hour Support Line have now overtaken calls about all other drugs, including alcohol.  

“The biggest concern is aggression and violent behaviour. With ice this can be very unpredictable – it just comes out of the blue,” says Tony Trimingham, the CEO of Family Drug Support, which has just produced Walking a Tightrope, a resource to help families and friends avoid drug and alcohol-related violence.

“Our advice is not to get involved in confrontations. You might feel it’s wrong to back down and walk away, but standing up to someone under the influence of ice isn’t an option.”

Associate Professor Nicole Lee, of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University, says: “Families of drug users often need support, but especially families of regular ice users, because it’s a drug that can cause a lot of chaos and be very difficult to live with.”

What is the difference between ice, amphetamines and methamphetamines? Amphetamine is the term for a number of psycho-stimulant drugs, including methamphetamine. Speed is the powder form of methamphetamine, and ice – which is more potent – comes in the form of crystals.

There are two things that set ice apart from other recreational drugs, according to Dr Lee.  One is that it triggers a greater release of the pleasure chemical dopamine in the brain – as much as 1000 times higher than normal levels – which helps explain both the intensity of the drug’s highs and its crashing lows.

“The other is that its effects on the brain are more complicated. While most drugs just act on one centre in the brain, ice affects three. Besides causing the brain to produce more dopamine, it also increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter which regulates sleep, mood and appetite. But ice also activates the ‘fight or flight’ system, causing the release of noradrenaline. This can make people anxious, suspicious and jumpy, and increase the risk of aggression and getting into fights,” she says.

Dr Lee says these effects on the brain can make it difficult to treat dependence on ice.

“When people use ice all the time, their dopamine system becomes worn out. They can’t produce normal levels of dopamine and this can make them feel very depressed, and the relapse rate is high,” she says. “Counselling and psychotherapy can help, but it can take 12 to 18 months for people to feel normal again.”

About 2.5 per cent of Australians have used methamphetamine in the past year, mainly people in their 20s and 30s. These users are likely to be employed and connected to their communities – so they do not fit the stereotype of the marginalised drug user, Dr Lee says. 

 “About 15 per cent of methamphetamine users are dependent – it’s likely that a higher percentage of ice users are dependent, given its potency. The remaining 85 per cent are more likely to use methamphetamine recreationally or to [help them] stay awake. But there are people using ice at a relatively low level who, although they don’t need treatment in long-term rehab, still need help to get off the drug or to reduce some of the harms – these people might be having trouble sleeping and feeling depressed and may not be making the connection between their symptoms and the use of ice.”

Call the Family Drug Support’s Support Line on 1300 368 186. Walking a Tightrope is available on the FDS website fds.org.au

For information about support groups for families of ice users in Victoria (Geelong, Hawthorn, Glen Waverley and Ferntree Gully) call 0412 382 812.