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Inside the First Nations Effort Making Recovery from “Ice” a Reality

Indigenous care worker Aunty Sonetta Fewquandie speaks on her life's work, providing recovery strategies for First Nations communities in Queensland.

This article is created in partnership with Queensland Health’s Ice Help campaign. Recovery is possible and help is available. To find anonymous and confidential help for you or a loved one, visit qld.gov.au/icehelp  

This article discusses mental health issues that may be of particular impact to First Nations peoples.  If you or a loved one need help, call the 24-hour Lifeline Australia crisis hotline on 13 11 14 or reach out to Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
Rolling Stone Australia acknowledges First Nations peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the land and pays respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. 

“Ice has had the biggest impact that I’ve seen in 30 years working in the community,” says Aunty Sonetta Fewquandie, an Indigenous care worker in Queensland’s Mackay Region. Sonetta is referring to the devastating impact crystal methamphetamine—commonly referred to as ice—has made both within her community and beyond. 

Certainly, this drug has had a major impact on Australians and First Nations communities. But through her own incredible work in this field, Aunty Sonetta has seen firsthand that help — even in the direst of circumstances — is available and that successful recovery is always possible. This truth is what drives her to best serve her community. 

Sonetta manages the Mackay and Region Aboriginal and Islander Development Association, better known as Marabisda—a community-led organisation that works with Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Australian South Sea Islander communities based in and around Mackay (which is approximately 950km north of Brisbane). 

Marabisda launched in 2008 to meet the particular needs of vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their families. Aunty Sonetta has been with the organisation for six years, but she’s been serving the community as a nurse and care worker for decades.

“The kids that I weighed as babies when I was working for the Aboriginal Medical Centre are now parents that I work with,” she says. 

Through her work and engagement, Sonetta is intimately acquainted with the drug’s damaging impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

How ice impacts families

“What ice is doing is just breaking our families up,” says Sonetta. “It’s taking the livelihood away from our men—our men that were once workers are now doing nothing; they’re walking the streets or don’t own anything because they’ve sold everything to get access to ice. This is what I’m seeing. It’s just unbelievable.”

Crystal methamphetamine stimulates the release of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. These chemicals impact energy, sleep, appetite, libido and mood. And yet, the impact of ice use is different for each person and their family. Ice use can lead to dependence and impact on a person’s physical and mental health, financial wellbeing, contribute to legal issues and cause strain on relationships. Ultimately, there is no safe level of use. 

If you or your loved one are planning to use ice, avoid using around children. Arrange childcare and supervision by a trusted adult to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those children.

The families of people who use ice may feel worried, angry and ashamed. Remember, recovery is possible and help is available

Unpacking the connection between ice use and trauma 

People use ice for a variety of reasons. But, as Dr Jeremy Hayllar of Brisbane’s Metro North Mental Health Alcohol and Other Drug Service told Rolling Stone Australia, drug dependence is more likely the consequence of past trauma. 

For Indigenous Australians, vulnerability to drug dependence and financial hardship is underpinned by transgenerational trauma. Australians Together describes it as trauma that’s “passed down from the first generation of survivors who directly experienced or witnessed traumatic events to future generations.”

A report from the Healing Foundation explains that “survivors of the initial experience who have not healed” pass trauma down to their children and grandchildren through behavioural patterns, styles of parenting, and mental health issues.

The root cause of Indigenous Australians’ intergenerational trauma is the British colonisation of the land that now makes up the Commonwealth of Australia, a multi-century process of sustained physical and psychological violence. First Nations people continue to grapple with the trauma of the harsh practices of the European settlers, which included more than half a century of forced child removal policies that gave rise to the Stolen Generations

So, as the road to drug dependence is often a multi-layered, complex form of adapting or coping, the road to recovery must be paved with empathy, understanding and without judgment. 

“I don’t go around and say, ‘Look, she’s bombed, they want to wake up to themselves,’ and stuff like that. You can’t do that,” Sonetta says. “You have to work with them to get ahead; you have to work with our community members to get ahead.”

What makes First Nation’s peoples’ recovery unique?

Sonetta manages Marabisda’s Indigenous Family Wellbeing Service and Family Participation Program. Her work is centred on keeping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families together—providing unique solutions that prove recovery from ice is possible, no matter the circumstances.

Her vital work comprises a broader push towards serving First Nations communities. For example, Eyez on Ice is a new resource package that has been developed by the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council to assist health professionals and families to support people impacted by problematic substance use, particularly crystal methamphetamine. 

The Eyez on Ice resource provides strategies to respond to critical incidents, reduce harm and provide pathways to increase safety for families and people who use substances. The resource package contains information for health professionals, support workers and families to improve health literacy and knowledge around alcohol and other drugs.

In her own community, Sonetta successfully campaigned for the introduction of a more inclusive alcohol and other drugs support unit at Mackay’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service (ATSICHS). Along with supporting people who use alcohol and other drugs, the ATSICHS runs a range of informal community programs to educate families on the nature of ice dependency and how to support loved ones who’re ice users.  

“The [families] that aren’t educated, they’re just chasing them [people who use drugs] out, kicking them out, ‘Get out, you’re not staying here, don’t want you nowhere near us.’ And the ones that understand will leave the door open and try and work with them,” says Sonetta.

Sonetta concedes that leaving the door open—in other words: creating and maintaining emotional space for recovery—is not easy. But she underlines a couple of basic principles that could help steer people who use ice towards recovery.

“Just walk beside them. Try and get them into rehabilitation.” For example, aim to find common ground and create space where help can be offered. More often than not, this is integral to the recovery process moving forward in a positive way. 

How services can help — why recovery is always possible 

People can and do recover from problematic substance use. While some people may be able to do this on their own, others may need some support. 

Services can help people manage their recovery journey as they find new meaning and purpose for their lives. “We’d help them get themselves in shape,” Sonetta says. 

Sonetta continues: “They’ll be doing positive stuff, too. Even just parenting or making a garden—just stuff to keep them busy and also give them that therapy while they’re there as well.”Queensland Health funds a number of residential and non-residential services to support people to reduce the harm caused by problematic substance use, including services for young people and adults. These can include AOD day programs, men’s, women and youth groups, outreach services, social and emotional wellbeing and other information and education programs such as Deadly Choices.

Support is provided by Hospital and Health Services, non-government organisations and Community Controlled Services.
To find a service near you contact adis (24/7 alcohol and drug support) on 1800 177 833 or use the adis service finder at https://adis.health.qld.gov.au/getting-support/find-a-service

Community and Country

The recovery of First Nations people from problematic alcohol and other drug use is dependent, to a large extent, on reinforcing people’s connections to Country and community, says Sonetta. Sonetta is a proud Torres Strait Islander woman who lives more than a thousand kilometres away from her ancestral homeland, but she says nothing compares to being on Country.

“You’re on where your people once lived many thousands of years ago. It’s just a feeling you can’t explain. Our mob love being together. It’s just that connectedness—they’re going through it together and feeding off each other and they feel that sense of belonging.” 

“Recovery is possible,” Sonetta says. “But until [people who use drugs] get to that moment where they’re ready, there’s nothing we can do except keep trying to walk beside them.” 

In the meantime, Sonetta encourages families of people who use ice to exhibit strength, patience and understanding.

“Just be there for them,” she says. “Don’t put them down if they relapse. You’ve just got to be there and support them every day.”

If you or someone you know needs help or support for alcohol and other drug issues contact:

Adis 24/7 Alcohol and Drug Support

Adis (1800 177 833) – a free, 24/7 anonymous and confidential telephone information, counselling and referral service for anyone concerned about their own or someone else’s alcohol or other drug use, including help to find appropriate treatment services.

www.adis.health.qld.gov.au

Family Drug Support

1300 368 186 (24/7 Support Line)

Help and support for families affected by alcohol and other drug use.

www.fds.org.au

Cracks in the Ice             

For Trusted, evidence-based information about crystal methamphetamine for the Australian community, including resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

https://cracksintheice.org.au/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples

To find out more about Eyez on Ice, contact QAIHC on 07 3328 8500 and ask to speak to the AOD Team.

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