Closing the gaps on mental health support

It's no great secret that there are gaps in the support systems that are meant to help us in times of mental distress.

But did you know that those gaps can get even wider if there's a mix of emotional distress and substance use?

People with lived experience of suicidal distress combined with alcohol or other drug use speak of how accessing the right support can feel like a game of chess where you need to know and leverage the rules to piece together the help you need.

Stigma and discrimination

Stigma and discrimination can also stop people getting help and increase feelings of shame.

This isn't the fault of the caring workforce but rather challenges of how the system is designed and the current limits on its ability to respond.

Many mental health organisations signal they are not equipped to address client substance use, and organisations that support people with alcohol or substance use often feel ill-equipped to address suicide concerns.

Underlying factors

When alcohol and drug use is a factor in people's lives, particularly around suicidality, there may be complicated underlying factors - alcohol and drug use is often the symptom rather than the cause.

The relationship between coping with stress or trauma and using alcohol and drugs can be complex and can change over time.

Some people use substances to escape or distance themselves from emotional pain.

But over time, dependencies can develop or the negative consequences of substance use, like relationship, financial or employment troubles, can emerge.

Tunnel vision

Alcohol and drug use can interplay with psychological distress and produce a kind of tunnel vision that restricts a person's ability to see ways out of their pain, other than suicide.

This is why we see acute or chronic alcohol or drug use as a significant risk factor in suicides.

The Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative (the Collaborative) has been working to help close some of these gaps in support systems and build better understanding of the complex interplay of suicide and alcohol and drug use.

Initiated by Collaborative lived experience members, we've been working closely with organisations who specialise in supports for people with concerns about alcohol and other drug use, and specialist workforce education provider, SafeSide Prevention.

Education program

This week we celebrated the launch of a tailored SafeSide Prevention education program for the alcohol and other drug workforce.

This new local initiative targets the gap in confidence and skills that contributes to people being shuffled between services for mental health, and alcohol and drug use.

This program will upskill the sector and encourage a common language and approach across sectors.

The final program is the culmination of meaningful collaboration between lived experience advocates, subject matter experts, workforce representatives, and other stakeholders such as the Network for Alcohol and Other Drugs Agencies (NADA).

It's been a truly collaborative process and the contributions of everyone involved are celebrated.

Over the coming year we will be working with local alcohol and drug support services to help them upskill.

There's already good indications that this local initiative will have an impact across the country - recognition of the critical gap that has existed in workforce education.

Help is at hand

You can find someone who will listen without judgement at Wollongong Safe Haven (open 2-10pm Wed-Sat, 55 Urunga Parade, Wollongong), Lifeline (24/7, phone 13 11 14) or 13YARN (24/7, phone 13 92 76).

For support for alcohol and drug use the Illawarra Drug and Alcohol Service can be contacted on 1300 652 226, or 24/7 phone support the Alcohol and Drug Information Service can be contacted on 1800 250 015.

Thank you to the Illawarra Mercury for inviting Jo Riley, Executive Member of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative to share her thoughts for this opinion piece.