Addiction, as is commonly believed, isn’t just a matter of willpower. It’s not about having to reach rock bottom, and it does not exclusively affect the downtrodden, the homeless or those lacking self-control.
In Australia, nearly 6000 people die from alcohol-related diseases each year alone, around one death every 90 minutes, with over a million Australians struggling daily with a range of substance use or gambling disorders, the majority of which go untreated.
“Addiction is the most stigmatised health condition globally, and that explains why so many Australians struggle to seek help” says executive clinical director at Turning Point, Australia’s leading national addiction treatment, training and research centre, Professor Dan Lubman.
“Stigmatising attitudes towards addiction go back hundreds, even thousands of years, underpinned by the mistaken belief that people who develop problems with alcohol, drugs or gambling are essentially weak or immoral."
“Stigmatising attitudes towards addiction go back hundreds, even thousands of years, underpinned by the mistaken belief that people who develop problems with alcohol, drugs or gambling are essentially weak or immoral. While our scientific and medical understanding of addiction has grown enormously over the past century, longstanding myths and attitudes around addiction, even when they conflict with the evidence, unfortunately remain entrenched.” he says.
“It also doesn’t help that Australian culture champions alcohol and gambling, where drinking to excess and having a punt are seen as badges of honour.”
The problem is that when the drinking and gambling get out of control, there is no support.
“Because drinking and gambling is so normalised, when people develop a problem, it’s seen as a choice to party too hard,” Professor Lubman says.
“There is this idea that addiction is their fault — the rest of us can control it, but those people who can’t are mentally weak.”
A veteran in the field of addiction (he has worked in the field for more than 25 years both as a medical doctor -- psychiatrist -- and a researcher) Professor Lubman has unique insight into the condition -- and its treatments.
He also features in the new documentary series made by Blackfella Films for SBS -- Addicted Australia -- which provides intimate access to ten Australians and their families as they battle addiction over a six-month period as part of a unique treatment program based on wrap-around support, from detox to outpatient care, for each individual.
“This means providing ready access to doctors, nurses, psychologists, peer and family support to ensure people have the right help and support to treat their addiction,” Professor Lubman says.
Within the first 15 minutes, the audience is introduced to Australians who suffer from a range of addictions (heroin, alcohol, gambling and crystal meth), and taken into their private lives like never before on TV.
There is Sarah, whose tragic experience with IVF left her with such deep depression she could only find relief in crystal meth; Matthew, a 33-year-old, clean-cut chef who starts drinking at 9am every morning and doesn’t stop until he is asleep; Lucas, an IT support analyst who spends all of his money on gambling; and (among others) 48-year-old Reuben, who has been using heroin for 25 years and has attempted treatment five times in the past, without much success.
“As it stands, the system is broken,” Professor Lubman says. “Instead of supporting people who have an addiction, we stigmatise them, blame them and often don’t think they deserve help.”
And the ignorance doesn't stop with the public. The entire health system, including doctors, nurses and psychologists, Professor Lubman says, are not adequately trained to deal with addiction, which is a big problem when they are often the first point of contact for most Australians.
“Unfortunately, most health professionals have not had the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge needed to treat addiction, and this means that unlike other health conditions, it can be a lottery whether they know what to do, or where to refer you."
“Unfortunately, most health professionals have not had the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge needed to treat addiction, and this means that unlike other health conditions, it can be a lottery whether they know what to do, or where to refer you,” Prof Lubman says.
“This lack of investment in training health professionals how to deal with addiction means that many Australians and their families are left to navigate their own pathways to treatment.”
There is also a fundamental lack of compassion for people with addiction, which exacerbates underlying feelings of shame and can result in a delay of up to 20 years from when somebody starts developing a problem with alcohol, drugs or gambling before they seek help.
“What people don’t seem to realise is that nobody I see wants to continue drinking, using drugs or gambling at levels that cause them to harm; they want help, but they can’t control their addiction,” Professor Lubman says.
Understanding that addiction is a complex disorder with a range of risk factors (such as underlying trauma, mental health issues, feeling disconnected and isolated or having a family history of addiction) is integral to fixing what Professor Lubman says is a “broken health system”.
“Until we start treating addiction like we treat physical illnesses such as cancer, diabetes or asthma, we will have a health system that is discriminatory towards addiction,” he says.
“If I present at emergency with a heart attack, I will instantly have a cardiology team whisk me away, offer me a bed in a specialised unit, give me the latest evidence-based treatments, rehab and support.
“However, if I have an addiction and get taken to the emergency department, I will typically be sent home with a number to ring, and the likelihood of being followed up or getting the level of support I need is low,” Professor Lubman says.
Until we change how we view addiction -- from personal failure to a mental disorder, something we cannot control any more than we can control cancer -- Australians, and millions globally, will continue to suffer from policies based on judgement.
“Currently, we have a whole generation of health professionals who don’t understand addiction; and more than 2000 people who die as a result of drug overdose each year, most of which are unintentional,” he says.
“What we need to understand is that while telling someone to ‘just quit’ sounds so simple, people struggling with addiction actually can’t. Because if they could, they would”.
Addicted Australia airs weekly on Tuesday at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand. The four-part documentary series is available with simplified Chinese and Vietnamese subtitles.
Turning Point, in consultation and collaboration with the sector, has launched a public information and advocacy campaign that asks Australians to Rethink Addiction. Visit the Rethink Addiction website to find out more about addiction.
Join the conversation #AddictedSBS
For more information: sbs.com.au/AddictedAustralia