Jack Nagle was 19 when he was introduced to crystal methamphetamine, or ice, for the first time.
As his use increased, Jack experienced periods of psychosis, often remembering little, if anything, of those episodes.
The toll it took on his health and on his relationships was devastating.
“People around me … would just tell me all sorts of strange things that I would do, which caused me a lot of embarrassment,” he says.
This is where the cycle of addiction for Jack started; where use turned into dependence.
“When I would use I would go up incredibly high, and that’s when I felt good, but it was actually when I was coming down and didn’t have the drug where I would experience the most problems, become incredibly depressed,” he explains.
“That’s often where I would have some of the psychosis episodes.”
Stigma is the ‘real tragedy’ of ice addiction
After finding himself “completely broken,” Jack’s family got him into a treatment program, where he was connected with a peer who had a similar addiction experience.
“That was really pivotal for me to be able to change, and I was able to become clean and off drugs from that time on,” he says.
But for Jack and many like him, breaking the cycle of addiction and seeking appropriate treatment is made even more difficult by the stigma and discrimination associated with being an ice user.
A recent study found that, compared to other drugs, crystal methamphetamine attracts “an elevated level of negative attention”, with users stereotyped as criminal, deviant or dangerous.
Researchers from the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance surveyed more than 2,000 Australians about their attitudes towards ice users.
They found that more than 70 per cent of the people surveyed ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement: ‘I won’t associate with people who use ice if I can help it’.
“That is the real tragedy of methamphetamine dependence in this country,” says Maree Teesson from the Matilda Centre.
“People who use methamphetamine are really hard on themselves, and the community is incredibly nervous, and there [are] huge levels of discrimination against people who use methamphetamines,” Professor Teesson says.
Among those surveyed who themselves had used ice before, more than half ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with the statement that: ‘People who use ice are mistreated in our society’.
This self-stigmatising — when someone facing social stigma starts to see themselves in the same negative way — can lead to feelings of low self-worth and shame, and makes it more difficult for ice users like Jack to seek help.
Instead, they slip into cycles of self-hatred and hopelessness.
“As all those different shameful experiences and moments and depressive feelings and anxiety and all that sort of stuff started to feed into one another, I started to need an escape,” Jack says.
“I had really just become a shell of the person that I was before.”
Ice use in Australia is rising
Ice is a highly addictive drug, and the cravings ice users experience are “intense”, Professor Teesson says.
“It is absolutely a bad drug, and it is a bad drug because it impacts you at every level of your life,” she says.
Over the past 15 years, Professor Teesson has observed an increase in crystal methamphetamine use in Australia.
“Australia has the highest rates of dependence on methamphetamine in the world,” she says.
Deaths relating to ice use are also increasing; about 18 per cent of people who die from methamphetamine dependence do so through suicide.
Professor Teesson says it is hard to untangle whether this is because people who use ice are more likely to have mental health issues or if the use leads to these problems.
“We do know that a lot of people come to crystal methamphetamine use with a long history of risk factors like trauma, depression and anxiety, and then you have a drug that can increase psychosis and other mental health problems,” she says.
Despite the high rate of ice use, there are currently no medications approved for the treatment of methamphetamine dependence.
There are, however, several clinical trials of different types of drugs underway, and talking and cognitive behaviour therapies have proved beneficial in methamphetamine treatment.
But Professor Teesson says connecting ice users with peers who provided non-judgemental support and worked at shifting self-stigma can really make a difference.
“One of the things that we’ve been working on is how can we break that stigma down,” Professor Teeson says.
“In the past we’ve done it by saying we’ll give just lots of information, [but] that’s not working.
Peer connection pivotal for Jack
For Jack, the support of the peer he met at a treatment centre was a turning point.
“I actually had something really profound happen to me at the treatment centre, which is, I met someone else a little bit like myself that was in recovery from a similar addiction,” Jack says.
“They were able to intimately describe to me how they were thinking and feeling, and I had sort of like a psychological shift in that moment that maybe I wasn’t alone, and that I could do it too. That was really pivotal for me to be able to change.”
With this peer’s help and the support of his family, Jack, now 30, was able to get into a rehabilitation program that was right for him, and recover from his addiction.
“I have a career and I’ve been able to marry and have a child,” he says.
Jack is now a drug and alcohol counsellor and runs Real Drug Talk, an online support service which aims to bring hope to individuals affected by addiction “without fear of judgement and consequence”.
He is also involved in the Matilda Centre’s research, looking into ways to reach ice users and shift stigma.
“Jack has been working with us on ways to engage with people who have lived experience of methamphetamine, and [people like him] can bring to light all of the information,” Professor Teesson says.
“Jack is incredibly powerful.”