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Substance Abuse Amongst Indigenous Australians

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Alcohol abuse is when an individual consumes alcohol in amounts which are harmful to themselves and/or others. Signs and symptoms of this include feeling dependent on alcohol, cravings and strong desires to drink, regular consumption and feeling withdrawal symptoms when not consuming alcohol.[1] Indigenous Australians are affected by alcohol abuse significantly more than non-Indigenous Australians, causing higher levels of associated health issues amongst the community. This results in a larger health and social gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians, which the Northern Territory is already working towards closing. Alarmingly however, I have found that 54% of indigenous Australians reportedly consume alcohol excessively on single occasions (32% less than weekly and 19% weekly).[2] These figures are not surprising to me however, as some Indigenous Australians are not as educated about the risks, and are not aware of the services available to them. This issue is so prevalent, as many Indigenous Australians have a poor upbringing causing them to adopt these negative lifestyle habits, resulting in multiple mental, social and physical health issues.

In order to combat this issue, the Government has implemented a range of supportive incentives to try and minimise the amount of individuals who suffer from alcohol abuse within Indigenous communities. In 2015, the healthy welfare card was introduced, which is in the process of becoming mandatory for Indigenous Australians. 80% of their government welfare payments is put onto the card which is not allowed to be spent on alcohol, pornography, drugs and gambling services.[3] 6 months after the card was introduced, hospital admission due to drunken behaviour had decreased, and the amount of arrests each month for public drunkenness had also decreased by 54% in just 3 months.[4] Majority of Indigenous community leaders stated that they had seen a significant difference in the community.[5] I feel as though the healthy welfare card is a good incentive as it has already proven to be beneficial to the Indigenous community. Although, a survey conducted by myself revealed that 37.5% disagreed with the healthy welfare card as it is viewed as ‘discriminative’, ‘unfair’ and ‘degrading.’[6] These comments are true in a sense as it may make indigenous people feel belittled and not seen as equals.

figure 1: percentile data of the responses to whether or not the healthy welfare card is a good incentive to combat alcohol abuse

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There are also numerous rehab facilities across the Northern Territory that are aimed at helping aboriginals who are experiencing problematic use of alcohol and other drugs. Some of which include Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Programs Unit, Bushmob, Banyan House and many more. These services provide ongoing care and treatment for indigenous australians who abuse alcohol. They offer 24-hour care, counselling and life skill development programs. Other incentives that are being done to combat this issue is price control on alcohol, restrictions on liquor store trading hours, fewer alcohol outlets and dry community declarations. It is in my belief that these incentives, as well as the services listed above are absolutely crucial as they are helping to reduce the number of indigenous Australians abusing alcohol. This in turn will decrease how many aboriginal people are dying from the consumption of alcohol as according to figure 2, the numbers are quite shocking and are significantly higher than they should be. I hope that one day soon, the number of indigenous deaths due to alcohol significantly decreases to the same number of non-indigenous deaths.

Figure 2:  Death rates related to alcohol use between 2008 and 2012.

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Even though there are multiple programs that have been implemented by the Government and by Indigenous Australians themselves, there are still a large number of Indigenous people who suffer from substance abuse and are not receiving help. The number of Indigenous Australians who drink alcohol at high risk levels has increased from 35% in 2002 to 37% in 2008[7], therefore the methods that the Government is enforcing are not 100% effective. I find this quite disappointing as the number of Indigenous people suffering from substance abuse should be decreasing in order to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, therefore it is obvious that enough is not being done by the Government. The survey I conducted revealed that 50% also believe that not enough is being done (refer to figure 3). I think the Government needs to prioritise reducing the number of Indigenous people who suffer substance abuse as it is causing severe health issues amongst the communities. Health issues such as liver disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer. It can also affect ones mental health as excessive alcohol consumption can result in unemployment and loss of friends which in turn can incite depression and anxiety. Alcohol consumption can also lead to violence. 24% of indigenous women are reported to be victims of domestic abuse.[8] Alcohol abuse not only affects the individual but also their friends and family therefore I think the Government needs to do more to help them as well.  

Figure 3: percentile data of the responses to whether or not the Government is doing enough to combat alcohol abuse

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There is still a significantly large gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in regards to alcohol abuse, despite the initiatives already taken by the Government. I believe that the government needs to take more action to reduce the numbers and find a more effective solution. One recommendation I would suggest, would be to bring back the Banned Drinkers Register (BDR). The BDR is a system in which individuals must show photo identification upon purchasing alcohol. Those who are on the banned list however, are restricted from buying alcohol[9]. The BDR was introduced in 2011, however it was scrapped shortly after and was not given enough time to prove its effectiveness. The Northern Territory Government is currently considering reintroducing it but I believe that it should definitely be implemented again as soon as possible. I think it needs to be the Northern Territory Governments main priority as I feel as though it would be very effective and significantly reduce the amount of Indigenous Australians suffering from alcohol abuse as well as decreasing the amount of physical assaults caused by being under the influence of alcohol. While the BDR was implemented in 2011, there was a 7.6% decrease of alcohol related assaults across the territory[10], therefore proving its effectiveness. I believe that it is also important for indigenous communities to be further education on the risks and are made aware of the services available to them. If indigenous Australians know the risks involved, then hopefully they will stop themselves and others from adopting bad habits caused by alcohol abuse.



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