Breaking bad habits

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

The phenomenal success of television show Breaking Bad has cast a spurious light on the world of methamphetamines. Following the broadcast of the widely syndicated TV show, several copycat cases involving striking similarities with the show’s fictional characters have come to light.

Recent reports even note the emergence of the show’s prominent ‘Blue Sky’ meth on the streets of New Mexico where Breaking Bad was filmed. Although heavily featured in the award winning show, little screen time was given to the harmful long-term effects for users and those around them.

UnitingCare ReGen, the lead alcohol and other drug treatment and education agency of UnitingCare, recently hosted a seminar discussing the realities of methamphetamine use and the latest in research and treatment.

More than 100 drug and alcohol support service practitioners convened to hear Associate Professor Nicole Lee and UnitingCare ReGen staff discuss the often sensationalised drug. Professor Lee, renowned internationally for her research into methamphetamine use and treatment, says media representations of meth use often tend to be distorted or sensationalised.

Professor Lee noted the almost cyclical appearance of scaremongering media portrayals touting the next ‘meth epidemic’.

“While it might be good to sell newspapers, these claims are really unhelpful for practitioners,” Prof Lee said.

“Because we can start to buy into these sorts of scary images and when we’re scared we can really miss the personal aspects of drug use.”

Prof Lee, and other speakers, highlighted the widespread use of the drug across some seemingly unlikely demographics.

“Meth users come from right across Australia,” she said.

“But there are a few groups that have particularly higher usage rates; young people aged between 20 and 29… and a number of occupational groups.

“Sex workers, people in construction and mining, media and communications, finance and hospitality industries all have a much higher rate of use than the general population.”

The emergence of users from professional backgrounds, not often associated with hard drug use, is something practitioners suggest is affecting many communities in terms of financial hardship born of meth addiction.

A UnitingCare ReGen client shared his experience of meth addiction and the impact it had on his life. The client, a heavyset and plain spoken man, recounted the ravaging consequences of his long-term meth use and the assistance provided by UnitingCare ReGen staff.

“I was once in the banking and finance sector, I was once a loving father, loving son, brother, uncle and friend.

“I emphasise the word ‘was’ because through this drug I became estranged from all those things I once was.

“After years of crystal meth abuse I was broke, alone and homeless.”

Through a range of intervention, counselling and support services, offered by UnitingCare ReGen, the client is now taking steps to rebuild his life and reconnect with his family. Outlining the difficulties in treating meth addiction, Prof Lee said that much of the complications arise from long-term disruption of the brain’s ability to produce dopamine.

“The brain releases dopamine when something good happens,” Prof Lee said.

“When you use meth the brain releases huge amounts of dopamine – up to 1200 per cent of normal base line levels.

“This huge release disrupts the normal process of dopamine production – it essentially wears out the dopamine production system.”

A key aspect hampering treatment is users’ ability to seek adequate treatment due to a range of cognitive impairments including paranoia and psychosis. Prof Lee and other practitioners stressed the need to be flexible and create supportive treatment environments.

“Meth, unlike any other drug, has a very powerful and very long-term effect on the brain,” Prof Lee said.

“This has a real impact in terms of people accessing treatment.

“The initial withdrawal period is one to 14 days which is a bit longer than many other drugs. However even up to 18 months later dopamine levels are still only functioning at about 80 per cent of what they should be.”

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