Ice addiction ages people inside and out
WA has got the message loud and clear—we’re officially the ice capital of Australia.
A report by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission earlier in the year was damning for WA. In 2016, each state had their wastewater tested for illicit drugs. What goes in must come out, and tested WA sewage showed levels of methamphetamine far exceeding the other states.
We’ve been offered a glimmer of hope. Sewage testing by WA Police has shown a downturn in meth use this year. But we’re not out of the woods yet.
Signs of our deadly habit have been showing up not only in the criminal world but our hospitals too, which is how it came to the attention of Professor Daniel Fatovich from Royal Perth Hospital.
At first, Daniel was just interested in finding out how much of the ED workload was related to amphetamines, but what he found through his research surprised even him.
What is methamphetamine?
Crystal, meth, ice—it all means the same thing. It’s a type of amphetamine, which is a stimulant that speeds you up.
“When you use amphetamines, they increase the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that lead to effects such as increased energy, reduced appetite, irritability and aggression,” Daniel tells us.
The neurotransmitter most released with meth is dopamine, which gives feelings of pleasure. So when meth is smoked or injected, the user gets a rush of energy and euphoria. Being sped up, it also leads to feeling restless and paranoid.
But what goes up must come down, and the crash from ice is especially horrendous, which is why people continue to use, delaying this crushing low and going days without food and sleep. And the more meth someone takes, the more severe the side effects become.
“Depending on the dose you take, those symptoms become more severe. They can lead to hostility, aggression, hallucinations, delusions, jaw clamping or grinding of the teeth, which is terrible to listen to,” Daniel says.
“One of the worst things—and we see this really commonly—is the profound paranoia and psychosis.”
It is these people with drug-induced psychosis that are creating more work in ED.
All hands on deck
Daniel saw more and more patients admitted to hospital with drug-induced psychosis. These out-of-control patients took far more manpower to treat.
“People are just crazy and screaming and completely out of touch with reality. It requires a whole team of people to essentially hold them down and get a line into them and give them sedating drugs to settle them down until the effects of the drugs wear off,” he tells us.
“They create a lot of work.”
So Daniel began recording meth-related admissions to hospital. This led him down a path of research to uncover more about WA’s dark underbelly. And where better to study the impacts of meth than in the brains of users?
Ageing on the inside
You may have seen ‘before and after’ photos of meth users in health class or online. The ‘before’ photos show normal, healthy young people. The ‘after’ shots are far more bedraggled. Gaunt faces with decayed teeth and facial sores make the users look aged beyond their years. But they’re not just ageing on the outside.
Daniel conducted an MRI brain study on users admitted to hospital. He was looking for brain lesions that neither the user nor doctors may have suspected. What he found was shocking.
“We found that one in five had an occult brain lesion. The most common type of brain lesion we found was … an unidentified bright object or UBO,” Daniel says.
“Basically, it’s a little bit of dead brain from scarring of brain tissue, and it’s very commonly seen as you get older. This is a young group of people. You wouldn’t expect to see signs of ageing in the brain.”
So users aren’t just ageing on the outside, they’re ageing on the inside too. When asked how these bits of dead brain affect patients, Daniel’s answer is chilling.
“Increased risk of death, dementia and stroke.”
An evil drug
Daniel has seen the ugliest side of WA’s ice addiction through his work. He’s seen young people suffer strokes from their ice addiction, leaving them with permanent disabilities. He’s seen the most extreme forms of meth-induced psychosis, which sometimes doesn’t go away after sobering up. And he’s seen the way the drug is slowly killing off parts of people’s brains.
“This drug is … damaging people’s brains and damaging their humanity. I think it’s dehumanising them,” he tells us.
“I would describe the drug as an evil drug … it really just messes people’s lives up terribly.”
Daniel’s main message to users? It’s just not worth it.
“You stand to lose your health, your humanity and the person that you are.”