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Home » Thousands are waiting for drug and alcohol treatment. For Chloe, the long wait for help almost took her life – ABC News

Thousands are waiting for drug and alcohol treatment. For Chloe, the long wait for help almost took her life – ABC News

Thousands are waiting for drug and alcohol treatment. For Chloe, the long wait for help almost took her life
When Chloe was told she'd have to wait 12 months for a bed at a drug and alcohol rehab centre, she spiralled.  
She was homeless, in her early twenties, and struggling with a drug addiction that had lasted since she was 18.
She found herself going in and out of crisis accommodation and was desperate for help but didn't know where to start.  
"I used a Google search, 'How to stop using drugs, how to get off methamphetamine,'" she told Hack. 
Advocacy group Rethink Addiction estimates about one in four Australians will struggle with alcohol, drugs or gambling at some point in their lifetime. 
Many hesitate to seek help because of the stigma, and when they do reach out, the wait lists to get help can make an addiction even harder to kick. 
When Chloe eventually got connected to a support worker, she learned there was a three-month wait for a detox bed to get off the substances, and another 12-month wait for a residential rehab bed where she could recover and rebuild.  
This bad news sent her into a dark place. 
"Honestly, my drug use increased more around that time, because of the feelings of hopelessness and the feelings of being trapped … And ultimately, that lead to an intentional overdose because I just wanted to end it all." 
Stories like this are depressingly common, with waitlists to access public drug or alcohol treatment already long, and in some areas, appear to have been getting longer. 
For many, the experience of asking for help and then being told they will have to wait weeks or months sends them down an even tougher path. 
Often, if a person wants to attend residential rehab, they first have to go through withdrawal management — or detox — at a medical facility.  
Professor Alison Ritter, a drug policy expert with UNSW, said Australia needed a system that could respond more immediately to what a person needed, "rather than putting them onto some system of waiting." 
"The trouble is, it's hard to get a detox bed," she said. 
"And it's even harder to get a [residential] rehab bed, and you've got to get those two beds to line up." 
Regional Victorians are calling for more residential alcohol and drug withdrawal and rehab beds, as lengthy waitlists leave sufferers in the lurch.
Between 2020 and 2021, nearly 140,000 people accessed publicly funded drug and alcohol treatment, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).  
About a quarter of these treatments were for withdrawal or residential rehabilitation. 
The AIHW doesn't capture how long people may have waited for treatment, or people who decided against putting their name down. Waitlist times, especially for residential rehabs, can be hard to track down in general.  
But the data that does exist suggests the wait can often be long — and appears to have increased in some places. 
In 2020, 14 organisations in drug and alcohol treatment fields told the federal government that, "According to the best estimates, up to 500,000 people can't get the help they need from alcohol and other drug treatment services — they're either not available or the waiting lists are too long." 
In Victoria, according to the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association (VAADA), the daily waitlist for residential rehabilitation nearly doubled between September 2020 and December 2021 (452 people up from 230).
VAADA CEO Sam Biondo said clinics often also closed their waitlists when they got too long, which would affect figures.  
"It's not ideal to put [waitlists] on hold, but it's actually a coping mechanism with extensive demand that's happening across the community." 
The Victorian government has since committed to creating 30 more rehab beds, but Mr Biondo said this was unfortunately not enough. 
The situation in NSW doesn't appear to be much better. 
Hack called multiple public drug and alcohol rehab clinics around the state in early September and the waitlist ranged from three weeks to six months.  
Last week, the NSW Government committed $358 million to address "treatment gaps" for drug and alcohol recovery.
When we spoke about this on Hack's radio program, we received text messages from people who had encountered the long wait lists for help.
For Jack Nagle, these are familiar stories.
Having once been addicted to methamphetamine and then recovered after receiving treatment, he now runs a private out-patient program and advocates for people seeking help with drug addiction.
He said that for him and many people he's worked with, addiction can be like a pendulum that swings between wanting help and returning to the substance.
"We lose so many people just because we don't have the ability to get people into treatment when they need it," he said.
Jack considers himself lucky that his mother's private health insurance allowed him to get into a private rehab with a medical detox facility and just a one-week wait. 
"A lot of the rehabs in the public sector won't be set up as like a medical facility … which puts huge barriers in for people. 
"A lot of people then unfortunately use substances again." 
Australia has both public and private rehabilitation facilities. 
With long waitlists for the public facilities, many people who need help are turning to private treatment clinics.
Dan Lubman, Clinical Director of Turning Point and a professor of addiction studies at Monash University, said that finding treatment could be a "lottery".  
"We have desperate individuals and families really looking out for support for somebody who has a genuine health condition," he said.
"It's not surprising that we see a number of private providers try to fill the gap."  
In Victoria, for instance, there were about 530 government-funded residential rehab and withdrawal beds recorded in the Health Complaints Commissioner's report last year, yet tens of thousands of people access alcohol and drug treatment every year.
Jack Nagle knows how much fear and stigma can hold you back when you are trying to overcome addiction.
And the private services can come at a price. 
The Commissioner investigated complaints that patients or their families had been charged tens of thousands of dollars for private treatment, with one complaint of $32,500 for 90 days of treatment
Professor Ritter said that private residential rehabs were "basically are not regulated." 
"That's not to say all privately funded [residential] rehabs are terrible places, or provide poor care, but there's no transparency or accountability in the system." 
Research done by Professor Ritter and her team has shown that there is a massive treatment gap across Australia.
“We have many different treatment funders. Many funders can mean that no-one steps up to take responsibility for filling the gap.”
Last month, drug and alcohol treatment services from around Australia congregated in Canberra at the two-day Rethink Addiction conference, where the topic of funding was discussed.
Government spending on mental health and ambulance services has increased at a much faster rate than for addiction treatment, according to data from VAADA.
"Because of the shame and stigma associated with [addiction] policymakers don't allocate sufficient funding to support a huge demand," Professor Lubman told Hack.
He said delayed treatment could damage a person's mental and physical health.
"That's why it's critically important for people to get [help] early."  
Chloe, who had to wait months for treatment, eventually got help and has been able to recover and rebuild.
Now more than three years "clean", Chloe feels she's "come out the other side".
She wishes she'd had help sooner.
"It shouldn't have had to get to that point where I'm desperately crying for help, and I'm in a psych ward because no one understands addiction and the detox process," she said. 
"But eventually I got accepted into the rehab and never looked back."
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