Western Australia’s Great Southern region has been overlooked to receive government funding for drug support services despite a spike in incidental overdoses in recent years.
The Pennington Institute’s Annual Overdose Report identified 30 deaths from drug overdose in the region between 2014 and 2018.
Only 16 deaths were recorded between 2009 and 2013.
With the highest fatality rate in the country as of 2018, the Great Southern records an average of 9.3 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the report.
Drug and alcohol service Palmerston’s regional manager for the Great Southern Ben Headlam said he wasn’t surprised by the figures.
“What stands out as the most concerning is the deaths related to opioids and the large percentages of those that are related to prescription opioids, which points to other issues in the sector at large. A lot of these people aren’t identifying for stigma reasons and the sort of person that would access a centre like ours is being managed by their GP and in many ways missing out on the broader support and are falling through the gaps,” he said.
Mr Headlam explained the introduction of ‘real-time prescribing’ helped cut the number of deaths but resulted in an increased use of illicit drugs, such as heroin.
“You take away a supply and people will inevitably, to some extent, move to an illicit supply,” he said.
Mr Headlam said the Great Southern was the only region in WA without a residential rehabilitation facility, with nearest facilities in Nannup and Brunswick, a three hour drive from Albany.
According to Mr Headlam, more than half the clients in the Brunswick facility travel from the Great Southern to receive treatment.
“It’s a barrier for access that will prevent people from ever actually accessing that potentially life-saving treatment and I think it very much needs to be addressed,” he said.
However, the State Government’s recently announced budget plan for mental health, drugs and alcohol in 2021 sees more than half the record $306 million going to initiatives in the metropolitan area.
Mr Headlam said the State Government should be commended for the ‘really positive’ things in the budget but he was disappointed the Great Southern was not a priority.
More than $50 million is going toward the new Safe Place initiative, which helps provide safe accommodation for people who are struggling with mental health.
Mental Health Commission assistant director Laura Keating said drugs and alcohol support had been prioritised in previous years.
“Over the last three or four years we’ve put an enormous amount of effort into drug programs, so this year it was more around suicide prevention and the Safe Place initiative that we felt was the focus in particular,” she said.
Ms Keating said the decision for funding came down to the level of community impact and benefit, explaining the highest priority initiatives were put forward.
A proposed investment for the Great Southern was outlined in the Mental Health Drugs and Alcohol Service Plan 2015-2025, indicating 16 residential rehabilitation beds would be put into the region before the end of 2025.
Despite this, Ms Keating said she was unsure whether the MHC would action the plan before then, saying it was “out of our hands”.
Albany mayor Dennis Wellington said the community “wouldn’t want to be holding their breath” waiting for the promised funding.
“The problem you have in regional Western Australia particularly is that 78 per cent of people in Western Australia are living close to Perth so getting large amounts of money is always difficult in that regard because, usually it goes off a population basis and we tend to lag behind in that regard,” he said.
Unaware of the report’s findings before being contacted by Western Independent, Mr Wellington said the Pennington statistics were ‘very disturbing’.
He said it was important for locals to “make enough noise” to ensure the promise of a new residential rehabilitation facility was kept.
“It’s been promised at some stage and we shouldn’t let it go,” he said.