“After Heath passed away in 2008, we were so preoccupied with losing a loved one,” says Kim Ledger, father of the Australian actor Heath Ledger, who died of an accidental intoxication from prescription drugs.
“I really didn’t understand what the effect was of mixing one type of prescribed drug with another, and on top of that, mixing prescription drugs with a sleeping tablet, which tragically put Heath to sleep permanently.
“I believe that Heath [didn’t know much about the issue of opioid addiction or misuse]… I am only just quietly educating myself recently, and have been for about three years. The facts shock you and the numbers are unbelievable.”
“The fact is that absolutely anyone can become dependent on opioids: it does not discriminate according to your age or gender."
According to the National Opioid Pharmacotherapy Statistics Annual Data, over 48,000 Australians were being treated for an opioid dependence on a typical ‘snapshot’ day in June 2015.
Common prescription and non-prescription opioids include codeine, heroin (synthesized from morphine), dihydrocodeine and oxycodone. A study published in 2015 shows oxycodone is one of the Australia’s most commonly abused drugs. It was also one of the drugs found in Heath Ledger’s system when he died.
The research also finds that there were 806 oxycodone-related deaths in Australian from 2001 to 2012. More than half of all deaths recorded from oxycodone were accidental and most were caused by combined drug toxicity.
Almost 40 per cent of patients who died from an oxycodone-related death had legitimate prescriptions, mostly for non-cancer related chronic pain. In about 75 per cent of all deaths recorded, the patient’s opioid use was also deemed ‘appropriate’ by the prescriber.
“The fact is that absolutely anyone can become dependent on opioids: it does not discriminate according to your age or gender,” says Ledger. “Opioid dependence goes right across Australia and its scope is very broad.”
Despite this belief, new survey results released today show that over 30 per cent of Australians think opioid painkiller addictions only happen to ‘junkies’. The online survey of 1000 Australians, commissioned by ScriptWise, also highlights that only around 20 per cent of respondents believe high-income earners or career-focused professionals could become dependent on opioid painkillers.
“We don’t know or hear much about opioid addiction or misuse is because there’s a stigma attached to it,” says Ledger. “But we know that when people are dependent on opioids, they seem to be less likely to discuss it openly with others but instead, suffer quietly for fear of being labelled a junkie.”
“The bottom line is that opioid addiction is a health issue, not a social problem."
Medical director at Addiction Sciences Queensland, Dr Christian Rowan, has been working in the field of addiction services for 14 years and regularly treats people from all walks of life with opioid dependencies.
He says opioids are regularly used for very valid reasons, by millions of people around the world to adequately and legally treat their chronic pain.
“The people with opioid addictions that we are talking about here are accidental addicts,” says Dr Rowan. “They become accidentally addicted because of the pain and psychological issues they are experiencing.
“When these medications are taken appropriately, there’s a positive effect. Not only do opioids relieve pain, they have a strong effect on mood, memory and subjective learning. By using an opioid, you not only relieve your pain but you will feel better and experience a bit of euphoria.
“But when things worsen, when a person is developing anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, then the positive effect of the drug can reinforce [the need to take the drug regularly] and an increased tolerance to get the desired effect then becomes necessary. This is cycle that some people can fall into.”
Dr Rowan also says that despite stereotypes, not every person who uses opioids will become an addict, just as not every person who plays Blackjack will become a gambler.
“We see opioid addiction on a weekly basis, people who are seeking treatment because of a addiction to prescription or over the counter drugs. It might be a man who has been off work because of an injury and has since developed a mild depression because of the psychological issues associated with living with chronic pain, or a young woman who buys opioids over the counter to deal with chronic menstrual pain or endometriosis. Before you know it, she’s increased the number or frequency of her painkillers.
“The bottom line is that opioid addiction is a health issue, not a social problem.
“These medications [created to treat chronic pain] have an appropriate place in clinical care but are not without their risks. Like any medications, they can have potential side effects and one side effect is dependency.”
He recommends that doctors and patients remain mindful of the need to manage the risks, harms or unintended consequences of opioids, which includes dependency and addiction issues.
“If anyone has concerns about themselves or a friend or family member who is reliant on medication, then they should be assessed and have their health and wellbeing monitored.”
For more information about opioid reliance, misuse or addiction, or to access support, visit turntohelp.com.au