Stigma or denial – what is stopping drug users from getting help?

New research from the University of Western Australia identifies stigma and embarrassment as some of the biggest barriers to meth users getting the treatment they need.

But a recovered addict disagrees, saying many users live in a state of denial about needing treatment at all, and usually come when they are desperate.

UWA’s research reviewed 11 previously published studies carried out in five different countries, including four papers from Australia, and analysed the findings to determine the largest hurdles to treatment. Ten of the studies featured surveys with either meth users or recovered meth addicts, and the other was based on interviews with treatment providers.

UWA researcher and leader of the study Craig Cumming said embarrassment and stigma was cited by most people the main obstacle to seeking help. He said this included feelings of shame regarding the users’ addiction and concerns as to what other people thought of them.

New research from UWA suggests stigma and embarrassment stops addicts getting treatment.
New research from UWA suggests stigma and embarrassment stops addicts getting treatment.

Mr Cumming said these feelings could be diminished if media campaigns focused less on creating shock and more on publicising available treatments.

“Media advertisements that lean too heavily in favour of shock, showing photos of meth users and focusing on the negative health, social, and criminal issues, end up stigmatising users,” he said.

He said media campaigns should include more information on where people could go for help, and advertise treatments like acceptance and commitment therapy that address stigma and get users to address their need to take control of their addiction.

But Peter Lyndon-James, who previously dealt methamphetamine and now runs Perth rehabilitation centre Shalom House, said he “completely disagreed” with the claim embarrassment was the biggest obstacle to seeking treatment. “Maybe that’s the case for white-collared guys who are afraid of bringing shame onto themselves and their families,” he said.

Mr Lyndon-James said thinking they did not need help was likely the biggest factor that would stop addicts from entering into a rehab facility – which was the second biggest problem named by subjects in the studies, as per Mr Cumming’s findings.

A former Shalom House resident, who preferred to remain unidentified, said he had struggled with shame and stigma as he battled a two-year addiction to painkillers. “I had responsibilities – I was running my own company, I had people working under me, and I thought I would lose my credibility if it came out.”

He said he kept it a secret for a long time out of fear if people knew he did not have the strength to overcome his addiction, they would assume he did not have the strength to handle his work.

Mr Lyndon-James said what usually drew addicts to Shalom House was desperation. “Eventually, you come to the end of yourself and you realise you can’t do it anymore, that you need outside help,” he said.

A plan to slow meth use in Western Australia

Mr Cumming said his research found meth use in Australia to be higher than in the other countries studied, which he attributed to the cheap rates at which the drug can be manufactured in Australia and purchased from overseas.

The state government’s WA Meth Strategy 2016 includes plans to disrupt the supply of methamphetamine from other countries. It also includes plans for roadside drug testing, dedicated police meth teams to target dealers, and an involuntary treatment program for those experiencing a drug-induced psychosis.

Earlier this month, the Meth Strategy delivered 60 extra treatment beds in metropolitan Perth and across the South-West, Goldfields, Mid-West, and Pilbara to open in January 2017.

Neither stigma nor denial about needing help are directly addressed in the plan, although mental health minister Andrea Mitchell said the government was trying to cover all bases when it came to treatment.

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