With every life lost to overdose comes devastation and grief. It’s a problem that affects all of us and there are a lot of persistent myths around this issue. This misinformation contributes to overdoses. Thursday, August 31, is International Overdose Awareness Day and the day aims to reinforce an important fact- that overdose is preventable.
Deaths due to accidental overdose increased in Australia from 2004 to 2014. In 2014, 1137 Australians died from accidental overdose, according to the Penington Institute’s Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2016. This represents a 61 per cent increase in a decade.
As the problem increases, it also changes. Rural and regional areas are experiencing an increase in the number of overdose deaths. There has been an 83 per cent increase in these areas while in metropolitan areas, the increase is there but smaller.
Despite popular belief about the age of people who die of accidental overdose, Australians aged 40-49 are in fact most likely to die in this way. Although stereotypes suggest that illicit drugs cause most overdoses, in 2014, prescription medications caused more drug related deaths (about 70 per cent of the total) than illicit drugs.
In order to address the issue of overdose, it is key that everyone has evidence-based, practical knowledge. Credible harm reduction information about the effect that different drugs have on the body and also about polydrug interactions, dosage and tolerance is essential. All drugs, including alcohol, opiates, stimulants, and prescription medication, can cause overdoses.
It’s integral to be aware of the right dosage, and to know what drugs should not be combined.
Understanding the relationship between tolerance and overdose is fundamental. When someone uses a drug frequently they build up a tolerance to it, meaning they have to use larger quantities of the drug to feel the same impact. If someone hasn’t been using often, or recently, their tolerance to the drug will decrease. Resultantly, when someone takes their usual amount of drugs after not using, it can be too much for their body to deal with and may lead to an overdose. People who have been released from prison, detoxification and rehabilitation can all be considered high-risk in terms of the potential for a drug overdose for this reason.
It’s also important to understand the link between the stigmatisation of drug use and overdose. When people are ashamed of their use, they use alone and/or in secret, which then increases the risk of death dramatically. Then there’s unhelpful labels such as ‘junkies’ that means that people are less likely to seek treatment and get well. There is research into this phenomenon; it is recognised that stigmatisation of drug use keeps people unwell and disconnects them from family and friends. Further such marginalisation keeps people out of the workforce and drains our economy. It’s time we understand drug use as primarily a health issue, and bring people into our treatment system without fear of judgment and labels. Events like International Overdose Awareness Day are vital to improve community education and address stigma.
There is help available for drug use through your local community sector organisations or Alcohol and Drug Services. For more information on overdoses and International Overdose Awareness Day, visit www.overdoseday.com/
- Dr Jackie Hallam is the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council of Tasmania policy and research officer