Research — 28 September 2017

Mental illness is becoming more common among illicit drug users, particularly those who use methamphetamines and ecstasy, a new report has found.

Although the number of people using drugs dropped slightly, data from the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), showed more users were being diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness than ever before.

Ecstasy and methamphetamines affect the chemicals in users' brains, which can affect their mental health. Supplied: Curtin University

Ecstasy and methamphetamines affect the chemicals in users’ brains, which can affect their mental health. Supplied: Curtin University

Matthew James, a spokesman for AIHW, said of people who had used methamphetamines in the past 12 months, 42.3 per cent had been treated or diagnosed for a mental illness.

“That’s quite a large proportion, and quite a big increase from 29 per cent in 2013,” he said.

He said soaring mental illness rates could be attributed to people using one of the most potent forms of methamphetamine, ice.

“There’s two things going on. You’re seeing a rising share of people using ice and people tend to use ice more frequently than speed,” he said.

“But you’re also seeing a rise in frequency of ice use among ice users.”

Also among those who reported higher levels of mental illness were ecstasy users.

The report showed 27 per cent were being treated for, or had been diagnosed, with a mental illness — compared with 18 per cent in 2013.

Associate Professor Nicole Lee, from the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI), said the increase in the survey could also be connected to a change in attitude around mental health problems in Australia.

“[And so more] people owning up to them and getting treatment for them as well,” she said.

She said both ecstasy and methamphetamines affected the chemicals in users’ brains which could affect their mental health.

“Particularly ecstasy… [which] releases a whole lot of serotonin and ends up with a depletion of serotonin in the brain. And that has been associated with depression,” she said.

Despite the report also showing a slight drop in the number of people using ecstasy and methamphetamines, Professor Lee said that was not the full story.

“We need to be looking at investing in reducing harm and improving treatment to really make an impact,” she said.

“Because we can see that even though use has reduced, harm is still increasing.”

‘I felt powerless to break the cycle’

Jack Nangle started drinking when he was 14, and by 18 was addicted to prescription pills and methamphetamines.

But there were other underlying problems too.

“I was never actually diagnosed but I was definitely experiencing psychosis,” he said.

“I used to walk down the street and talk to myself. I used to think that people… everything wasn’t real.”

Now 26 and a recovering addict, he remembered feeling powerless and unable to break the cycle of his drug-taking, depression and anxiety.

“Just feeling hopeless, lost and confused and… lonely,” he said.

“And then all those feelings just contribute to the guilt and shame that you feel as that keeps going on and those emotions keep deepening.

“Then you look for more drugs or whatever it is to kind of escape that pain, and that’s what the cycle of addiction is.”

This piece by Jane Lee was first seen on ‘ABC News’ September 28, 2017.


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