Minister for Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP, has announced that the Australian Government will provide an additional $6 million in funding to selected drug and alcohol online and phone support services during COVID-19. The University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre among five groups that will receive a portion of the funds.
The Matilda Centre, led by Director Professor Maree Teesson, conducts research in mental health and substance use and develops online learning programs and support tools to prevent and treat mental health and substance use disorders.
The $0.6 million boost in funding will facilitate enhancements of the Cracks in the Ice and Positive Choices online portals to help support Australians and reduce the risk of drug and alcohol related harms to the Australian Community during COVID-19, particularly among those impacted by isolation.
"We welcome the Australian Government’s commitment to enhancing digital responses to support people experiencing drug and alcohol problems in the wake of COVID-19," says Professor Teesson.
"The impacts of social isolation, increased anxiety and stress are likely to be significant, and this funding will help us provide critical online prevention and support during this challenging time."
Associate Professor Cath Chapman, who is a lead investigator on this program of work, says that the enhancements will be tailored for vulnerable groups. "This will enable us to better support particularly vulnerable groups including people living in rural and remote areas, parents and teachers, young people and families of those experiencing drug and alcohol problems”, she said.
Cracks in the Ice provides practical, evidence-based information about the potential harms and mental health problems associated with crystal methamphetamine ('ice') and provides information about how to access services and support.
"We know that when people have reduced access to traditional services and treatments, they can be more at risk to potential harms associated the methamphetamine use," says Associate Professor Chapman.
In rural and remote Australia where people generally have less access to traditional services and treatments and are more vulnerable to the impacts of isolation and reduction in face-to- face treatment options, methamphetamine use is twice as high as metropolitan areas.
During this time of isolation, families are finding it particularly challenging to support their loved ones. "People are definitely concerned about their loved ones' methamphetamine use and there is urgent need to support families who are affected" says Cracks in the Ice Project Lead Dr Steph Kershaw.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Australia, the Matilda Centre has seen an increase in people accessing our Cracks in the Ice portal and increased number of social media users sharing stories about loved ones experiencing difficulties in accessing rehabilitation services for their methamphetamine use.
There is no doubt that school communities have been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents and teachers are under increased pressure to ensure continuity of learning through online technologies and are seeking online resources to support home-based learning.
With schools moving to online education models there has been an increase in the number of teachers accessing the Positive Choices portal as they prepare for drug education classes. Researchers at the Matilda Centre review drug education programs from Australia and around the world and test their evidence-base and alignment to the national curriculum.
"It is a hub where teachers can go to find information for themselves, for students and for parents," explains Senior Research Fellow and Positive Choices Project Lead, Dr Lexine Stapinski.
"It can be a really helpful tool for teachers planning their drug education classes as many of the resources and programs we have reviewed can be accessed online and are suitable for 'at home' learning."
One such program is Climate Schools which has been extensively trialled by researchers at the Matilda Centre. "We know this is a tough time for a lot of teachers, parents and students," says Professor Teesson.
As a show of support the Matilda Centre is providing Australian Schools with free access to their online intervention program Climate Schools. "This program is ideal for teaching wellbeing and drug education classes online," says Professor Teesson.
"During this time there is an opportunity to translate awareness to action and actually deliver evidence-based online interventions to young Australians."
Over the last four weeks an additional 168 schools and over 1,500 high school students across the country have registered with Climate Schools, with many more anticipated to register as staff and students settle in to Term 2.
Cracks in the Ice and Positive Choices portals are funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and managed by researchers at the Matilda Centre.