'Unacceptable' rehab wait robbing drug users of will to change
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'Unacceptable' rehab wait robbing drug users of will to change

Resolve comes in the darkest moments for users like Mark Avis.

The hardest knocks bring a sobering clarity, shaking loose the grip of addiction for just long enough to turn a life around.

Recovering heroin addict, Mark Avis, 48, at his home in Oaks Estate.

Recovering heroin addict, Mark Avis, 48, at his home in Oaks Estate. Credit:Rohan Thomson

Or when your girlfriend takes a fatal hit, he says, or an overdose kills the only sister who still speaks to you.

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Mark Avis, 48, has spoken out about his experiences to try to change a system robbing addicts of the will for change.

Mark Avis, 48, has spoken out about his experiences to try to change a system robbing addicts of the will for change.Credit:Rohan Thomson

The will for change might come after you've been told by paramedics to keep pumping the chest of a young man who has used too much on his first night out of prison, when you know he's already long dead.

Maybe it comes with the realisation that at the age of 48, nearly everyone from your teenage years of thieving and using on the streets of Sydney is dead.

"Sometimes there are fleeting moments, you know what I mean?"

"There's times when you just look at your life and you think 'well this is f---ed, I don't want to do this any more'."

Karralika chief executive Camilla Rowland said steadily rising demand coupled with stagnant government funding have drawn out waiting lists.

Karralika chief executive Camilla Rowland said steadily rising demand coupled with stagnant government funding have drawn out waiting lists.Credit:Rohan Thomson

"If you don't get the chance to grab it and take hold of it at that time, that need or want goes away and you get caught back up in it again."

But it's the ACT's impossibly long waiting times for residential drug rehabilitation that are draining the willpower of many who try to turn their lives around.

Addicts who come looking for help are being told they must wait between two to three months for a spot in residential rehabilitation.

The problem, support services say, is a product of stagnant ACT funding for non-government services in the face of steadily rising demand, driven mainly by an explosion in ice use.

The ACT has the lowest number of rehabilitation providers in Australia, according to the Productivity Commission, and many have spoken out to The Canberra Times and Sunday Canberra Times in recent months about the difficult situation they are trying to operate in.

Karralika runs one of Canberra's main residential rehabilitation programs, the Karralika Therapeutic Community, which currently has a wait of two to three months.

very user in its service now lists methamphetamine as one of the drugs they are trying to beat.

She said the number of people seeking treatment for methamphetamine has doubled in the past few years.

"The funding level has remained about the same for the past 12 years in the sector and yet demand has grown for residential rehabilitation services," she said.

"We are very pleased to receive the CPI increase each year from the ACT Government, but in terms of operating a top quality residential rehab, it's becoming increasingly challenging."

The sector describes the current situation as "unacceptable".

Studies, they say, have repeatedly shown that the prospect of waiting is so daunting for an addict that they routinely fall back into drug use.

It stymies attempts to get a job, can worsen psychological problems and lead them back to crime, according to Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT executive officer Carrie Fowlie.

"This is unacceptable and perpetuates or prolongs crisis, risks and harms for people needing treatment, their families and the community," she said.

Ms Fowlie said the shift to ice use among drug users was compounding the problem, and said some waiting lists had been closed altogether to new applicants in recent times.

The association estimates demand for all non-government ACT drug support services, including residential facilities, has risen by 36 per cent in the five years to 2014.

Residential rehabilitation is only one way for users to seek help.

But Ms Fowlie said other supports like counselling, case management or peer treatment programs like Narcotics Anonymous – often just as effective as residential rehabilitation – are also in short supply, compounding the problem further.

She said investment in government services had been made in recent years, but funding of non-government specialist programs was vital to help reduce waiting lists and ease the burden on services that are constantly stretching existing resources to cope.

Mr Avis is now recovering from an addiction that he admits has taken over much of his life, and wants to help others by one day training and working as a drug counsellor.

His brave decision to speak about his experiences publicly was done in an attempt to change the system, because he knows what happens when an addict is told to wait.

"People get turned away and they're turned back to using."

"This person has a thought and a decision just for a period of time, and if you let that period of time go, they're just going to return to using again."

"But if they were able to, in that moment of clarity, go and start doing the right thing, chances are a lot better for them."

Christopher Knaus is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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