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Ice: The drug that’s hard on the head – and hard on families


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

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

20 comments so far

  • This affects the public as well. I really hope schools can get through to kids how dangerous drugs are, how destructive this drug is and what people on ice do. Their behaviour affects not only their household but neighbours, paramedics and the wider community they interact with. The violence people on ice are capable of is very frightening.

    Date and time
    July 21, 2014, 8:15AM
    • The ice epidemic highlights why we need a more nuanced and smarter approach to drug laws. By blanket prohibition of everything any advice looses its impact. By treating innocuous drugs such as cannabis and MDMA the same as ice and crack cocaine the kids are not getting the right message and making them think everything is a lie. 'You told me I would be a raving schizo if I took a puff of a joint mum and that didn't happen, so I might as well try a bit of this ice'. Legalisation of the softer recreational drugs is the only smart approach.

      Date and time
      July 21, 2014, 11:21AM
      • totally agree. i also believe that if less aggressive drugs were regulated and available it may lead addicts of ice , or potential addicts , to satisfy their needs in a less damaging way. until this 'all drugs are bad and illegal' prohibition continues this problem will continue. not many people give up drugs through a fear of prosecution , they do it , because of the effects it has on their lifestyle, friends and family , and themselves.

        Date and time
        July 21, 2014, 2:53PM
      • What's funny is that a combination of MDMA (serotonin) and cannabis (dopamine) would probably help them get off Ice.

        Date and time
        July 21, 2014, 4:04PM
      • @Luke
        With respect, I don't think that your comment is very helpful.

        THC (the active component of cannabis) is not dopamine - THC *reduces* production of dopamine in the brain:

        The pharmacology of MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine) is complicated - it promotes release of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, not just serotonin.

        More generally, I think that self-medication with one street drug for another is a really bad plan.

        Ice (methamphetamine) is highly addictive. Recovery from ice addiction needs skilled help from health professionals, not home therapy.

        Dr Kiwi
        Date and time
        July 21, 2014, 5:14PM
    • My ex-husband is an ice addict. He stole every single thing of any value from the house, and physically and sexually abused the children. He is no longer a person, but a crazed zombie, still getting sympathy from various drug counsellors because he weeps all the time at the terrible self inflicted pain of his own life. He used to blame his father, but now he uses his inability to see the children he abused as an excuse. Any excuse will do, and nice, benevolent people feel sympathy.
      While I am dealing with the debt and raising the troubled children, he is getting a disability pension (at 33 yrs old), getting all of his parking fines revoked (for drug addiction, mental health reasons) and countless chances in and out of rehab.
      Society is throwing resources at him, taking him into the psych wards when he's psychotic and detox and rehab whenever he wants, paying for his 'disability' pension and giving him multiple options through drug replacement programs, psychologists and counsellors: all paid for.
      It makes me irate seeing the number of chances he has been given, getting away with crime, parking fines and the need to work because he chooses to be a drug addict. Yes, chooses. At any time, he could decide he’s had enough and stop. He just doesn’t want to, because living with the reality of what he has done to the people he loved is so difficult. It is easier to obliterate the truth and use drugs. Giving these life-sucking leeches a pension for being a drug addict is the most outrageous waste I can think of. The drug addict can choose to get better whenever they want. It is their choice. But where is the incentive when we are paying them to be sick?

      Date and time
      July 21, 2014, 11:51AM
      • This has been my experience with a family member on ice, amongst other drugs. My relative has had so many chances, offers of help, jobs handed to him on a platter, subsidised housing etc. Unfortunately, some people simply don't want help. They enjoy the attention, the sympathy, the drama and the freedom of living on the margins. They're eternal victims and milk the sympathy card for all it's worth. Many kind-hearted people genuinely feel that they can help them and fall for their mind games. They would be better off spending their time and energy assisting the families that these people terrorise and destroy. There's a certain point when you can't blame all your problems on mummy and daddy anymore and you have to take responsibility for your life.

        Date and time
        July 21, 2014, 6:34PM
      • Your comment rings true for me as a GP who sees many drug addicts on Disability pensions.

        Yet when the govt states they want to tighten up the DSP, they don't give these examples or get a comment from the GPs who are asked to write these bogus requests, they pull out some guy in a wheelchair or another with an oxygen mask to abuse the minister.

        Most of us want the end stage cancer patient or quadridplegic to get double their pension but their payments are no doubt capped because they are competing the this lady's ex-husband and the other 'bad backs', druggies and malingerers with their hand out.

        Dr Geoff
        Date and time
        July 22, 2014, 12:43AM
    • I sympathise with Newsystems above; as an ex-partner of a marijuana addict and mother of five, I have observed that my ex embraced the drug, he didn't "battle" it. It was at the centre of his life and his children and me came second always. Get Real! People use illegal drugs because it feels good and they love it and then they get addicted. What mother of five Debbie with 18 year old son on ice really needs is new locks on her doors and security mesh on her windows to keep her druggo son out of the house. I bet she is still feeding the bludger and washing his clothes!.. Stop enabling Debbie and toughen your love. It is your adult son's big problem.

      Date and time
      July 21, 2014, 7:11PM
      • Hi there, I am Debbie's daughter. My brother isn't allowed at the house, my mum doesn't wash his clothes or feed him. But she does support and encourage him if he makes a healthy decision like wanting to go to rehab. He is very sick and I think the point is we need to have more resources available to addicts that want help as there are huge waiting lists.

        Date and time
        July 22, 2014, 10:09PM

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