Canterbury alcohol use 'masks' quake troubles

ASHLEIGH STEWART
Last updated 05:00 19/11/2013

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Canterbury health and welfare agencies are worried earthquake-related stress is helping to fuel alcohol and drug abuse.

More than three years on from the region's first big earthquake, health professionals are monitoring a spike in the use of synthetic cannabis and the growing phenomenon of opioids.

Information from the Alcohol Drug Helpline's South Island centre shows in the past year calls about synthetic cannabis jumped from 1 per cent of the total to 6 per cent.

However, Alcohol Drug Association NZ chief executive Paul Rout said alcohol remained the main problem for South Islanders, making up 62 per cent of calls, followed by cannabis at 10 per cent and synthetic cannabis.

"That's the one that's really shifted," Rout said.

Opioids made up 5 per cent of calls, but were only now "starting to show up in referrals for problems because of its addictive qualities".

The Christchurch District Health Board's Alcohol and Other Drug services had seen similar trends.

Sue Nightingale, specialist mental health services chief of psychiatry for the DHB, said there had been an escalation of people "with significant problems" resulting from synthetic cannabis and oxycodone (opioid) abuse.

The DHB's inpatient medical detox unit, the Community Alcohol Drug Service, and the gastroenterology department had also reported a rise in younger people "with serious physical health complications secondary to long-term alcohol use".

People in their late 30s and early 40s were requiring treatment for alcohol-related illnesses including chronic liver disease, she said.

Since the quakes, the CDHB had increased community support to cater to demand.

City missioner Michael Gorman believed alcoholism was fuelled by post-quake stresses associated with dealing with insurance, restoration choices and finding accommodation.

"We suspect that alcohol is masking depression and anxiety and general low mood.

"Alcohol is by far and away the main problem."

The mission's services were working to full capacity to cater for the influx of addicts.

"We think that those who were already a risk have increased their use. Once they may have had a bottle, but were still able to function. They may now have a couple of bottles or more, and so can no longer function . . . [and are] under a new set of pressures."

A new group of people making their home in Christchurch, often from overseas and without support, had added to the problem, Gorman said.

Synthetic cannabis was second only to alcohol, as "it is cheaper, easy to get, [and] less illegal", he said.

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Aviva had also noted an upswing in legal synthetic drug dependency in people between the age of 19-25, and were now collecting information on the trend.

Nigel Loughton, clinical director of addiction centre Odyssey House, had observed an increase in mental health concerns related to the rise of synthetic cannabis.

He predicted a continued small rise in substance abusers next year, and agreed the influx of the building work force may further boost the number.

However, he said treatment in the city was improving.

"There is better integration and collaboration of alcohol and other drug services," he said.

- The Press

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