New national data has exposed the complex relationship between illicit drug abuse and mental illness, leading to renewed calls for a different approach to addiction.
Analysis of the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) on Thursday, shows 27 per cent of people who used an illicit drug within a 12 month period were diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness – an increase from 21 per cent in 2013.
Rates of mental illness were particularly high for methamphetamine and ecstasy users.
In 2016, 42 per cent of methamphetamine users had a mental illness, up from 29 per cent in 2013.
The rate of mental illness among ecstasy users also rose from 18 per cent to 27 per cent.
David Grant, the Penington Institute’s acting CEO says the survey’s findings further highlight Australia’s existing “war on drugs” approach to addiction isn’t working.
“We need to treat drug use and addiction for what it is – a serious community health issue with widespread implications for our society,” he said.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem – we need better community education for people who are experimenting with drug use.”
However it’s too hard to say if the drugs are causing mental illness or vice versa; such is the nature of the “complex issue”, says Mr James.
Methamphetamine is a stimulant and can make people increasingly anxious, jittery and ‘on edge’. Feelings of paranoia can also creep in, says Dr Kym Jenkins, President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
Dr Jenkins says the high rates of mental illness among drug users would not be surprising to any treating psychiatrist.
“It is very understandable for some people with mental illness that they may seek to self medicate with illicit substances and we know with things like methamphetamine they can cause people to feel paranoid,” Dr Jenkins said.
“We know there’s high rates of substance abuse in the methamphetamine space in mental illness but we need to understand the problem a lot more and then we need to action to do something about it,” Dr Jenkins said.