You might be surprised that the majority of overdoses in Australia are from prescription medications, not illegal drugs. The misuse of prescribed drugs is a serious health issue.
Prescription drugs are a necessary part of treatment for some. But not taken as prescribed, they can be extremely dangerous. Bee Mohamed is the CEO of ScriptWise, a not-for-profit dedicated to reducing the use of prescription medication. She says people do not realise how quickly they can get addicted.
"It actually happens quite accidentally, if I can say it that way. They might have been to the hospital for a minor surgery or they went to a dentist or they suffer from chronic back pain and they've been prescribed these medications and unfortunately, sometimes, the patient might not take the medications as prescribed."
In only a couple of weeks some can get addicted to a medication. John Ryan is the CEO of the Penington Institute, a not-for-profit working on countering substance abuse. They’re also the founder of International Overdose Awareness Day, on August 31st. He says anyone can be at risk of addiction.
"People used to think that the overdose problem was just about heroin or illegal drugs and that it only affected people that were illegal drug users. But actually, most overdose deaths in Australia are from prescription drugs. And it's not just people living in the inner cities, it's actually right across the cities, suburban areas, as well as regional and rural areas. And it's right across the age range as well. In fact, the most risky age is between thirty and sixty."
Prescription drugs are a necessary part of treatment for some. But not taken as prescribed, they can be extremely dangerous.
If you get prescribed strong painkillers like morphine or oxycodone, he recommends you talk to your doctor and pharmacist to make sure you understand how to take them properly.
"I would really encourage people to talk very openly with their doctors about these drugs. They have a very important medical role and they're actually good drugs. The only risk is if they are not taken as directed. For example, combining these drugs with alcohol is not recommended, that really increases overdose risks. It's actually important for people to have a good understanding of these drugs and also to follow the doctor's instructions and the pharmacist's instructions."
Most people don’t realise that prescribed medication or even over the counter medication comes with risks. This is what happened to Paul. When he got injured several years ago, there was not much warning out there about codeine-based drugs.
"My addiction started when I was about 21 years of age. I had a sports injury, a shoulder injury playing football and I was taking Panadol for that. That wasn't working so a friend suggested taking some medication called Nurofen Plus. That's where it all started. I was taking two a day, then it got up to four and five and six and then eventually it got to 90 tablets a day before I got rushed to the hospital."
The drug Paul took will only be available with a prescription from February 2018. That’s part of the new measures to have a better control on painkillers and other prescription medication.
The government will roll out a new prescription drug monitoring system in the next 18 months.
ScriptWise’s Bee Mohamed explains how prescriptions will be tracked.
"It will be the first system in Australia that will allow GPs and pharmacists to have access to that information just so they're able to ensure that before they write that script, that's actually a patient that doesn't have a script somewhere else or potentially to really understand the kind of dosage of the medication the patient is on and then whether to understand if the patient is at risk or dependency or not. It's something that would allow health professionals to make a more informed decision really."
If you or someone you know has a problem, Bee Mohammed says there are people out there to help.
"There are actually different services in different states, so it really depends which state that you live in, there are helpline numbers to just talk about your issues. And what those helplines usually do, they might be able to refer you to the right GP, potentially look at a recovery or a treatment plan to get you off these medications. And what we're trying to do ultimately is that if you feel that you might be developing that dependency, it's just kind of knowing that there's nothing wrong with how they feel. It's just about having the right conversation and seeking help".
After being rushed to the hospital, Paul was able to detox and beat his addiction. But he remembers how addiction isolated him.
"But people do need help and sometimes they're just too scared to come out and get it".
If you think you need help, know someone who does, talk to your GP or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
John Ryan from the Penington Institute encourages everybody with a prescription drugs problem to seek help through their GP.
"Part of the solution is to have a conversation about drugs and conversation about addiction so we can better understand the risks and better understand how to respond. Doctors are actually an excellent resource to talk about these issues. I don't think people should feel shy to talk to their doctors about these issues. Obviously, it's always an uncomfortable conversation, but it's actually much better to have the conversation than to keep silent."
Useful phone numbers and links:
Medicines Line (to get information about your medicines): 1300 Medicine
Lifeline (to get help and for crisis support): 13 11 14
Family Drug Support: 1300 368 186
Beyond Blue (to get help and for crisis support): 1300 22 4636
International Overdose Awareness Day https://www.overdoseday.com/
Penington Institute http://www.penington.org.au/
Turn to Help http://www.turntohelp.com.au/
Counselling online (Chat and SMS support) http://www.counsellingonline.org.au/how-we-can-help/chat-to-a-counsellor
New Drug Alert System to Save Addict Lives http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/07/28/new-drug-alert-system-save-addict-lives
Codeine-free pain relief is better http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/08/16/codeine-free-pain-relief-better-expert
Codeine to require a script from 2018 http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2016/12/20/codeine-require-script-2018