Fenton abandons Smeaton rehab for foreign approach

Psychotherapist Stuart Fenton is back doing what he loves, but he’s a long way from where he thought he would be doing it.

New home: Former Ballarat psychotherapist is plying his trade in Thailand after his proposed rehabilitation centre in Smeaton was rejected in 2016.

New home: Former Ballarat psychotherapist is plying his trade in Thailand after his proposed rehabilitation centre in Smeaton was rejected in 2016.

Living in Sydney around the turn of the century, Mr Fenton’s own battle with ice addiction is one all too common across Australia.

Speaking to The Courier in 2013, the former high-functioning addict said “nothing seemed to be able to stop me from doing something that I really didn't want to do”.

After overcoming his extended battle following treatment at a facility in Byron Bay, he went on to help others overcome their condition in Ballarat as well as hospitals in Melbourne.

It was almost two years ago when the reformed drug addict first put forward a bold proposal to develop a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in the sleepy Hepburn Shire town of Smeaton, half an hour north of Ballarat. 

The plan to build the 10-bed Meadows Therapeutic Community just outside of the township sparked a fierce response from the local community. 

Stuart Fenton addresses a community meeting in 2015.

Stuart Fenton addresses a community meeting in 2015.

In the end it was a basic infrastructure concern which led the Hepburn Shire Council to reject the proposal.  An objection from Goulburn Murray Water in July 2016 was the final straw for a project which struggled to win over its closest neighbours.

“I was very disappointed...we were trying to do something at the time that could have helped so many people and have minimal impact on the community,” Mr Fenton said of the Smeaton plan.  “We did our best to educate the locals about what a therapeutic community was and how it operates within a greater community, we had community meetings to answer questions and delivered letters and info packs about what a therapeutic community was.”

The-then Hepburn Shire mayor Neil Newitt recalled that planning factors were the primary cause of council’s unfavourable response, but said community engagement also played a part. 

“For a number of reasons the council decided it wasn’t a suitable site for a rehabilitation centre ,” Cr Newitt said.

Almost two years on from having his regional Victorian plan knocked back, Mr Fenton has found another location to use his skill set – albeit a long way from home. 

Now located at the esteemed Cabin drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Mr Fenton is part of a specialist group which focuses on assisting members of the LGBTI community who are battling addiction.

But it doesn’t come cheap.  An addict has to part ways with $14,000 for the 28-day program, an option many simply don’t have. 

While debate around the Smeaton development has since faded, the ongoing issue of addiction across regional Victoria hasn’t. 

From 2010 to 2016 ice use across the country jumped by 36 per cent, while people in regional and remote areas were twice as likely to use the addictive substance compared to their metropolitan relatives.

While limited space is available at the private Raymond Hader Clinic in Bacchus Marsh, UnitingCare’s Tabor House just outside of Ballarat and Bradshaw House in Halls Gap, many who are struggling with addiction are forced to look elsewhere for help.

While the state government committed an additional 20 rehabilitation beds for the Grampians region earlier this year, they are not expected to be made available until October 2018.

“There’s a major gap in services and Ballarat Community Health has been calling for alcohol and drug rehab beds for a number of years,” Ballarat Community Health chief executive Robyn Reeves said. 

While encouraged by the state government’s recent investment, Mr Fenton said keeping awareness in the public arena of addiction as a disease would play a big role in helping to combat the scourge in regional Victoria.  “Give them the opportunity to rehabilitate and society stands to benefit greatly.”