New Program in the Illawarra to Combat Alcoholism in Aboriginal Communities 1

By Bella Peacock

A symbol of hope: the Illawarra Aboriginal Medical Services

A symbol of hope: the Illawarra Aboriginal Medical Services

A new home detoxification program especially tailored for Aboriginal people is being trialled in the Illawarra. The outpatient program, the only one of its kind in NSW, has been established to overcome the cultural and practical barriers preventing high-risk Aboriginal drinkers from seeking help.

“There is a huge inadequacy in New South Wales for Aboriginal-specific drug and alcohol services; there is a huge gap,” says program coordinator Leanne Lawrence, who devised the detox service while working at the Illawarra Aboriginal Medical Services.

“Our mob don’t do well in rehab because a sense of freedom and sense of self are lost,” she says. Ms Lawrence developed the program in collaboration with the University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The proposed service was then funded through a Good Practice Grant from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education last year.

The Illawarra Aboriginal Medical Service assists about 1,200 of the 4,000 Aboriginal people living in the area. Ms Lawrence estimates that of those clients, 80 percent are high-risk drinkers. “Alcohol and tobacco are the two major killers of Aboriginal people today,” she says.

According to Michael Thorn, Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, programs like the Illawarra home detox service are integral to overcoming the broader problem of alcoholism in Aboriginal communities.

The detox is a five-day medicated program, with each client appointed an individual social worker to counsel them through the withdrawal. Sarah Barclay, who manages the detox service, says, “We tailor the program to suit the wants and needs of the individual.”

According to Leanne Lawrence, this process works well with Aboriginal patients as they are given more freedom, confidentiality and can build up a deep level of trust with the one-on-one social worker.

The important aspect of the program is that it is “culturally comfortable”, according to Ms Lawrence. This means that the program acknowledges and respects the culture of each client, using his or her heritage to enrich the service. The program does this by drawing on aspects of Aboriginal culture such as the structure of the community and spirituality. According to Ms Lawrence, these are empowering forces that are often neglected in mainstream services.

While ensuring the confidentiality and comfort of the clients, the home service also addresses practical issues such as transport and cost.

“A detox program is definitely needed,” says Bernice Mumbulla, an Indigenous woman who has been living in the Illawarra for two years. She says there is a lot of shame in being alcoholic in the Aboriginal community and having a confidential, one-on-one service is an effective way of overcoming this.

Ms Lawrence and Michael Thorn hope to create a model from the program that can be taken up by other Aboriginal Medical Services throughout Australia.

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