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Guardian's personal plea on youth drug and alcohol services

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South Australia’s Guardian for Children and Young People has called on the State Government to address an “inadequate” provision of drug and alcohol services, which she said ultimately impacted her son’s chance of survival.

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Guardian Penny Wright told this morning’s International Family Drug Support Day forum in Adelaide that she was convinced her son Mungo Parnell, who took his own life when he was 21-years-old in 2016, could still be alive if her family had found appropriate rehabilitation treatment for his drug and alcohol dependency.

Family Drug Support founder Tony Trimingham launched the international day in 2016 after losing his 22-year-old son Damien to a drug-related overdose. The organisation aims to support families impacted by drug dependence and to promote harm minimisation strategies to reduce the shame and stigma of drug use.

Wright, who said she was speaking at the event as a mother and not formally in her role as Guardian for Children and Young People, told this morning’s forum that her son Mungo’s death was “strongly linked to his dependence on alcohol and drugs”.

She described her and her family’s sense of anger and helplessness at watching Mungo “spiral slowly downward over some years” as his mental health, alcohol and marijuana dependence, and suicide attempts escalated.

“Like all of us who have lost someone we love to drugs and alcohol, I will not let judgement or stigma allow him to be just another statistic,” Wright said.

“It is important to speak at these kinds of events in the hope that it will save others from having to learn lessons the hard way.”

Wright described Mungo as a “gentle, funny and clever” man who showed “terrible, terrible concern for refugees”.

“He had many friends who loved him and customers at the supermarket when he worked who were old, or slow, or a bit lonely, would queue for his checkout because they knew he was patient and would offer them a friendly word,” she said.

“At first he did well at high school but then something began to get wrong in later years.

“I think he had anxiety and some growing chronic sadness.

“He was acutely sensitive but his open-heartedness and vulnerability also made him acutely aware of the pain in the world.”

Wright said Mungo began to drink alcohol when he was 16-years-old and later began to use marijuana and Xanax.

“He may have started by thrill-seeking and then found these substances helped with the pain he was feeling, or maybe he was self-medicating from the start so he could feel normal, happy or robust,” she said.

“Either way he quickly developed a problem”.

Wright said she spent Mungo’s last year caring for him by “trying to hold him back from the brink”, including trying to get him effective treatment everyday.

From that experience, she said she learnt “just how inadequate our drug and alcohol services are for young people in South Australia”.

“I learnt that information given to patients before they leave hospital should not refer them to youth services that have been closed for at least a year, or that are not open to them because they are too young, or too old, or don’t have to right kind of addiction,” she said.

“I learnt that when a person with a substance dependence decides that they want help there can be a very small window to help them and services need to be able to respond at that time.”

Wright said she vividly recalled one day when Mungo came home from three weeks in hospital “stabilised, detoxed and daring to hope that he could beat this thing”.

“That day, he mustered the courage to ring a government service,” she said.

“Then I saw his despair when he hung up the phone because they told him he couldn’t have an appointment for a week’s time.

“His hope receded.”

Wright criticised the state’s drug and alcohol policies that she said “ostensibly keep people safe (but) can end up driving them further into danger”.

“Policies like sniffer dogs at the Adelaide Railway Station that prevent young people from catching the last train home safely to their bed, where their parents are waiting to hear that door close and know that they’re home safely, and instead lead to an overnight in the mental health ward or the city lock-up.”

The event precedes this afternoon’s scheduled upper house debate on the Marshall Government’s controversial Controlled Substance (Youth Treatment Orders) Amendment Bill.

The Bill, introduced last year, would give the Youth Court the power to determine whether a young person was drug or alcohol-dependent and unlikely to seek voluntary treatment. The court would then have the option of making a treatment order requesting the young person attend a treatment service.

If the young person failed to follow court instructions, the Youth Court would have the power to detain them for up to 12 months for mandatory treatment.

Wright has been one of the leading voices opposing the Bill, arguing in her submission to the State Government last year that the approach treats a health problem as a “criminal issue”.

“The Bill pays insufficient attention to the fact that children and young people have fundamental rights, including the right to understand and have a say in decisions that affect them, and that these rights should have explicit recognition in the substantive legislation rather than merely being addressed by regulation or stated simply in policy,” she wrote in her submission.

“In any event, there is little evidence to indicate that mandatory treatment programs for children and young people work.

“Research demonstrates that children and young people who are brought into contact with the youth justice system are more likely to be involved in the adult system.

“Treating a health problem as a criminal issue may simply result in a greater number of people being incarcerated as adults.”

Speaking on behalf of Health Minister Stephen Wade at today’s forum, Liberal MLC Dennis Hood said the aim of the proposed legislation was to provide a last resort referral option for families.

“We know that it can be difficult for families to reach out to get support due to feelings of shame as well as fears of being judged by others and other social preconceptions,” he said.

“This particular program would be a first in Australia.”

But Greens MLC Tammy Franks, who also spoke at this morning’s International Family Drug Support Day event, said the Bill was akin to “putting the cart before the horse”.

“I echo the calls – nobody should be in prison simply for using drugs in this country,” she said.

“I urge the Marshall Government to move away from some of their dog whistling that they did during the state election that got them some votes and start looking at the science and seeing all of us as people who deserve inclusion and support.”

South Australian Network of Drug and Alcohol Services executive director Michael White also questioned the Bill’s intent to provide a “last possible option”.

“Why do we have to wait until the last possible option to provide solutions?” he said.

“Why didn’t Penny have a worker to see Mungo at home that day when he wanted treatment?

“What we need to say is, how can we make our youth treatment system more responsive to young people, more agile, more capable of reaching them in their homes.”

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14 – or you can call the Mental Health Triage Service / Assessment and Crisis Intervention Service on 13 14 65.

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