'Fearful for their lives': Why First Nations people are more likely to seek drug and alcohol support

People living with drug or alcohol addictions are often considered a lost cause even though the path to recovery is possible with the right support. Source: E+/Getty

Wiradjuri woman Megan Williams says a desire to connect to culture is a strong motivation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to seek support.

A new report has shown that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to reach out for help and treatment during times of alcohol and drug abuse.  

The latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, released on Friday, found one in six people seeking treatment identified as Indigenous

That is rate of 3,580 clients per 100,000, compared with 515 clients per 100,000 non-Indigenous Australians.  

Clients who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander accounted for 17 per cent of all clients of alcohol and other drug treatment services, despite making up three per cent of the Australian population according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.  

Wiradjuri descendent and health and justice researcher Megan Williams said the numbers don’t surprise her.  

Culture is the profound number one determinant of health, wanting to experience that strong Aboriginal healthy culture and identity is a really strong reason for people to get healthy, including addressing alcohol and drug issues,” Ms Williams said.  

“We have many wonderful role models in the community about sobering up, about getting well, and that inspiration that they do convey to other people in their communities to get help and to get healthy before it’s too bad as well.” 

Wiradjuri descendent Megan Williams said culture is a main driver for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reaching out for support.
Wiradjuri descendent Megan Williams said culture is a main driver for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people reaching out for support.
Supplied: Megan Williams

The report highlights the need for systems, including the prison system, to provide greater diversion into health interventions, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 

We need to get our community members [into prisons], who are a really important part of the informal support, so it’s not just support from services but it’s support from people in the community,” Ms Williams said.  

“Like Aboriginal mens groups, Aboriginal womens groups, because we know they are there, and they connect us... these groups have been around for countless generations and provide excellent support for the community, so they can provide that local knowledge and create that real web of support for people, particularly when people are leaving prison.”  

Ms Williams also called for more Aboriginal-controlled drug and rehabilitation healing services.  

“These services are being chronically underfunded,” she said.  

“Aboriginal controlled health organisations are well attended and well used by Aboriginal people and they are also the highest employer of Aboriginal people, so they tend to be well shaped by local culture and governed well by Aboriginal people.  

“They are culturally safe places which is vital in healing from alcohol and drug issues.” 

Spiritual approaches to drug rehabilitation  

The Glen rehab facility is an Aboriginal controlled health service on the New South Wales Central CoastIt’s a centre designed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, helping them deal with issues of drug and alcohol abuse. 

With 37 beds, the centre is the largest rehab centre for First Nations men in New South Wales. If someone doesn’t get in, they are offered support in a pre-rehab program where they can talk to counsellors until a spot becomes available.  

Set up by Ngaimpe Aboriginal Corporation, the facility has adopted a holistic approach to rehabilitation by integrating Indigenous culture and spirituality.  

“That’s the big difference, that’s the stuff that makes a difference to the clients that come to The Glen,” CEO of the centre, Joe Coyte, told SBS News. 

The Glen
Men chat at The Glen.

“That’s the stuff our clients tell us makes a big difference to them and their journey trying to recover from drug and alcohol addiction.”  

Mr Coyte said rehab is generally the last resort for many, with the men at The Glen checking in because “they are at a rock bottom”. 

“People that attend The Glen have pretty much tried everything else and it hasn’t worked... people don’t come to rehab unless they’ve tried to manage things in other ways,” he said.  

“The people that come to us are literally fearful for their lives. 

The centre generally runs a 12-week program, but Mr Coyte said if someone isn’t ready to leave after that period, they stay on.  

“They stay as long as they need to stay, sometimes that’s less than 12 weeks and sometimes it might be a bit more than 12 weeks,” he said.  

“We would never ever kick someone back out on the street... there is only one reason people leave The Glen and that is because they are ready to leave The Glen.”  

The centre, funded by both the state and federal governments, also welcomes people who have relapsed.  

Unfortunately, due to the nature of addiction, a lot of people do need to come back a second or even a third time,” Mr Coyte said. 

“We like to think we try hard to try and avoid it but reality of addiction is that it’s a complex beast.” 

There are currently plans to establish The Glen for Women, which will take on similar cultural and spiritual approaches to rehabilitation tailored specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.  

They are also considering establishing a youth centre 

Additional report findings  

The report showed there has been a nearly six-fold increase in the number of Australians getting treatment for drugs such as ice or speed in the past decade. 

The number of Australians seeking help for drug and alcohol abuse has been steadily increasing since 2014-15. 

About 137,000 Australians aged 10 and over sought treatment for their drug or alcohol issues in 2018-19, up 19 per cent on 2014-15.  

While the number of people seeking help for alcohol abuse alone has slowly dropped over the past decade, it remains the most common drug people sought help to deal with.  

Treatment for amphetamines increased from 10,000 to 58,200 episodes over the 10 years to 2018-19. 

Among those cases, methamphetamines, like ice, made up two-thirds of treatment in 2018-19. 

More than half of those seeking drug and alcohol treatment were between 20 to 39 years old. 

Australians aged 40 and over made up 35 per cent of treatment cases. 

Younger Australians were more likely to be the ones seeking treatment for cannabis use, with nearly two-thirds aged between 10 and 19 years old. 

Heroin users were mostly older, with the number of people seeking treatment declining over the past decade. 

Men received more treatment than women. 

Additional reporting by AAP. 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch