I initially worked alongside researchers from the Matilda Centre in 2016 while the Centre was part of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW. For over a year I assisted in the development, translation, and national distribution of an online training program for the National Comorbidity Guidelines. The Guidelines are an evidence-based resource that aim to build capacity among clinicians in regards to the identification and management of co-occurring mental health and substance use conditions. It didn’t take me long to realise that although many people experience substance use conditions, they are often misunderstood and poorly treated.
Before my growing passion for research could eclipse my urge to travel, I moved to the UK. I even surprised myself by securing a researcher role at the Department of Addictions at King’s College London, where my focus was on the health effects of cannabis use. Over the next 18 months, I was surrounded by some of the leading experts in cannabis research, attempting to answer both topical and controversial questions such as 'are there safer ways to use cannabis?' I felt like I had discovered my niche, and I too had a question that needed answering, in particular 'why is cannabis use so common among those using opioids?’. Fortunately, this question could be answered by the Australian Treatment Outcome Study (ATOS), a landmark longitudinal cohort study that was conducted by researchers at the Matilda Centre. So, I packed my bags, headed home to Sydney, and began my PhD at the University of Sydney.
I too had a question that needed answering ... 'why is cannabis use so common among those using opioids?'
The increasing prevalence of illicit and non-prescribed opioid use is a major public health concern. Opioid dependence is responsible for more disability and death than any other illicit drug used worldwide. Adding to the severity of the condition, those with opioid dependence frequently engage in the use of other substances, particularly cannabis. Despite this co-occurrence, it remains unclear how cannabis use affects those with opioid dependence, with previous research demonstrating both detrimental and beneficial outcomes for users.
Fortunately, researchers from the Matilda Centre have been conducting the longest and largest longitudinal cohort study of people with heroin dependence in Australia. Since it began in 2001, participants from the ATOS study have provided information about their heroin and other drug use, treatment service utilisation, as well as their physical and mental health. The study has spanned over 18 years and we are currently undertaking the seventh follow-up of the ATOS cohort. The ATOS study will provide me with a rare and unparalleled opportunity to examine how cannabis use impacts on the longitudinal outcomes associated with opioid dependence.
The ATOS study will provide me with a rare and unparalleled opportunity to examine how cannabis use impacts on the longitudinal outcomes associated with opioid dependence.
The most rewarding part of my job is being able to interact directly with people whom my research ultimately aims to benefit. The ATOS study involves conducting interviews with participants, and it’s that personal contact that encourages me to progress with my research.
Science was my least favourite subject throughout high school. Now that scientific research encompasses a lot of what I do, I often feel like I’ve lived two separate lives.
Jennifer Debenham is a PhD candidate at the Matilda Centre. Her research aims to unite and empower young people to engage in positive health behaviours around alcohol and drug use through a brain-based drug education program, known as ‘The Illicit Project’.
Researchers at the Matilda Centre conducted a needs assessment to help us better understand and address the unmet needs of people with problematic alcohol use and comorbid depression when making decisions about early intervention and treatments.