A veteran Sydney doctor says the age at which people first try drugs has dropped as low as 12, blaming it on a “culture of getting high” - with devastating consequences for later life.
An annual snapshot of drug admissions at Odyssey House, Australia’s largest rehabilitation service, has found that while a decade ago people first got intoxicated at 16 or 17, they are now starting out in their early teens.
Kenyan-born Dr Nino Sa Cordeiro has worked as a drugs and alcohol doctor at Odyssey House and in private practice in the Campbelltown area for 35 years. Dr Sa Cordeiro says with teenagers starting drugs at such a young age, there is a quick decline which sees them eventually leaving school, making their treatment even tougher.
“A lot of my clients do not have a good standard of education, which has serious consequences. To treat them effectively they’ve got to have a mental health that is receptive to psychological suggestions - and these people are at the very basic level,” he says.
“They’ve cheated themselves, they’ve denied themselves of an education, and they’ve denied themselves of natural maturation which occurs at 12 to 13 … they are taking drugs when their brains are most vulnerable.”
DRUGS THE 'NORM'
One of his patients is Lavina, a 22-year old mother of four who has been battling an amphetamines and alcohol addiction at Odyssey House in Eagle Vale in Sydney’s west for 14 months. She started taking drugs at 13 as her friends were doing it.
“It seems to be getting younger now and it seems to be more normalised now out in society for some reason. It’s the norm to be on drugs whatever kind of it. For myself, I was quite young when I started using drugs and I think it was mainly to do with the fact my friends were doing it … it’s a social thing now.”
The report also found there has been a surge in amphetamine addiction and that alcohol was the primary drug of concern for 30% of clients, with 50% of them suffering from some form of mental illness.
Dr Sa Cordeiro says tackling the problem has also been exacerbated by a shortage of medical professionals, who are reluctant to work with addicts who often steal from chemists and threaten doctors. He is also concerned about the trend towards short-term treatment programs, arguing that research and his own experience would suggest that people need to be in rehabilitation for at least one year.
He hopes to see more work done on preventing young people starting on drugs as otherwise “you are never going to fix the problem … we are wasting all our resources and limited medical manpower in treating preventable things and nobody is dealing with it.”