Alcohol and drug treatment services in regional areas are struggling to keep up with demand as the Victorian Coroners Court releases its latest analysis of overdose deaths across the state.
And COVID changed the way many people used drugs and alcohol, often with devastating consequences.
Over the 10 years to 2020, Ballarat recorded 73 drug overdose deaths including 24 in the past two years.
In the surrounding local government areas of Hepburn, Golden Plains, Moorabool and Pyrenees 45 overdose deaths were recorded throughout the decade but only three in 2020.
Last year there were 526 drug overdose deaths across the state and over the past decade there were 4551 lives lost to overdose from pharmaceutical drugs, illicit drugs and alcohol.
We know that the way people consumed alcohol changed dramatically under COVID-19, with an increase in drinking occurring in the home, often in isolation. It is not surprising that alcohol has made such a strong contribution to overdose in 2020, nor is it surprising that 2020 marked the highest rate of alcohol solely contributing to fatal overdose.Sam Biondo
According to the Victorian Coroner, overdoses of pharmaceutical drugs were the most frequent contributors to fatal overdoses, playing a role in more than three quarters of deaths, and in around three quarters of overdose deaths there was more than one drug involved.
Alarmingly, during 2020 a record number of women aged 25 to 44 died from overdose, with 89 deaths recorded compared to 60 the previous year.
"Some of that might relate to COVID conditions, with increased consumption while in isolation," said Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association executive officer Sam Biondo.
Prescription benzodiazepines contributed to more than half of fatal overdoses across the state last year, and alcohol was involved in almost a third.
"We know there was increased consumption of alcohol while in isolation, linked to alcohol sales being considered 'essential' and increased availability of alcohol to be home delivered ... and more use of pharmaceuticals and illicit substances. Given alcohol and pharmaceuticals are the biggest category that people die from it would be associated with those deaths," he said.
"This data reveal a dramatic shift from pre-existing trends which can likely attributed to aspects of COVID-19, including how we use drugs, the types of substances available and the social and economic impact of the restrictions on certain demographics," he said
Mr Biondo said the figures also reflected the fact that getting treatment for alcohol and other drug problems in regional areas was often difficult as services struggled with workforce availability, distance and high demand.
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And because many people with alcohol and drug addictions also have mental health issues, and the mental health sector faces similar challenges to the alcohol and drug treatment sector, Mr Biondo said there was often a disconnect between treatment options.
"The Royal Commission in to Mental Health report does highlight the need for the mental health system to pick up its game in the AOD space and essentially deal with dual diagnosis much more effectively than it has in the past," he said.
Mr Biondo called for a renewed focus on reducing the overdose toll.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support, phone Lifeline 13 11 14. Help is also available, but not limited, via the following organisations. The key message is you are not alone.
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