Overdose. It’s a powerful word which many people immediately link to dark alleyways, syringes or self-inflicted destruction. And, sadly, many of us look at overdose victims with disgust, or at least judgementally, unable to see past the drug (or drugs) to the circumstances that have so tragically affected their lives.
International Overdose Awareness Day is an opportunity to learn more about people who use drugs. I challenge everybody on this day to ask themselves: why is it that so many people from all walks of life turn to drugs?
Not all overdoses happen in back streets with illegal substances. Australia is seeing an increase in the number of overdoses from over-the-counter and prescription medications. These are usually prescribed by doctors for pain or stress, and they are being misused by men and women in most age groups.
What’s happening is that people are often taking these drugs for longer than they should, not realising how dangerous and deadly they can be.
Many people use pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs to deal with traumatic events like abuse, family problems or the loss of a loved one. Research shows people also misuse drugs if they can’t see a future for themselves and feel disconnected from society.
With a deeper understanding of the root problem that is leading to inappropriate drug use, overdoses are preventable. With this understanding, we can assist individuals and communities to tackle the personal and social drivers behind risky behaviours.
It’s vital that everybody feels a sense of belonging in their community and has access to strong support networks. Places like schools, sporting clubs and community groups can provide support and mentoring. They can also promote positive health messages and good examples around alcohol, tobacco and illegal drug issues. We know people without employment can feel rejected and left behind, so providing training or relevant experience is also important.
Because we will never be able to fully stop the supply and consumption of illegal drugs, we also need to promote safety for the people who are using them. A prime example is medically supervised injection centres. I strongly support a trial in Melbourne’s North Richmond, where people are overdosing on the streets. Tragically at the moment, not everyone is saved. People are dying, bringing heartbreak to family, friends and residents.
Medically supervised injection centres are safe places where people can be referred to health and social services. We’ve seen huge successes from the safe injection centre in Sydney, which has had no fatalities.
Tasmania and Victoria are showing leadership with real-time prescription drug monitoring systems, to assist people dependent on pharmaceuticals. All states and territories ought to catch up to stop dangerous ‘doctor shopping’, where people get multiple scripts from different health professionals. But as we also know, this is not the whole story.
More public education is needed around the alternatives to prescription medications. Patients need to know taking pills isn’t always the best answer. Exercise, counselling and relaxation are just some ways that can help and can ultimately prevent and reduce harm.
Far too many people are dying from preventable overdoses each year. It’s vital everyone understands that drug problems are largely health issues, stemming from personal and social difficulties.
Instead of judging, fearing or criticising drug users, we should be supporting our fellow citizens.
They’re just human beings after all.