A new alcohol detoxification program based at home has been trialled in the New South Wales Illawarra region for Aboriginal people. Bella Peacock reports.

The outpatient program, the only one of its kind in NSW, has been established to overcome cultural and practical barriers preventing high-risk Aboriginal drinkers from seeking help.

Alcohol detox

A new alcohol detox program has been introduced for Aboriginal people in NSW. Photo: HM Revenue & Customs / Foter /Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Leanne Lawrence, the program’s coordinator, says she developed the service while working at the Illawarra Aboriginal Medical Services.

“There is a huge inadequacy in New South Wales for Aboriginal specific drug and alcohol services, there is a huge gap,” she says.

Ms Lawrence developed the program in collaboration with the University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The proposed service has been funded through the Good Practice Grant from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. She says this new program will be different from other rehabilitation programs as “our mob don’t do well in rehab because a sense of freedom and sense of self are lost.”

The detox is a five-day medicated program, with each client appointed an individual social worker to counsel them through the withdrawal. All related costs, such as transport or medication, are covered by the service.

Sarah Barclay, who manages the detox service says “we tailor the program to suit the wants and needs of the individual.” According to Ms Lawrence, this works far better with Aboriginal patients as they are given more freedom and confidentiality and can build up a deep level of trust with the personalised service.

The program also ensures clients are as “culturally comfortable” as possible, by acknowledging heritage to enrich the service. It 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.

“A detox program is definitely needed,” says Bernice Mumbulla, an Aboriginal who has been living in the Illawarra for two years. There is a lot of shame involved in alcoholism in the Aboriginal community, and having a confidential, one-on-one service is a effective way to overcome this, she says.

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

According to Michael Thorn, the 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.

Both Michael Thorn and Leanne Lawrence say they hope this program will become a model for alcohol detoxification programs in Aboriginal Medical Services across Australia.