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Drug and alcohol handbook responds to call from Aboriginal health workers


11 September 2012

(L-R) People involved in the handbook with members of the University of Sydney: student Bonny Gibson, Professor Kate Conigrave, student Peter Jack, Dr Kylie Lee, Professor Marie Bashir, editor Jimmy Perry and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Shane Houston.
(L-R) People involved in the handbook with members of the University of Sydney: student Bonny Gibson, Professor Kate Conigrave, student Peter Jack, Dr Kylie Lee, Professor Marie Bashir, editor Jimmy Perry and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Professor Shane Houston.

It has to fit in the glove box and you shouldn't need a medical degree to make sense of it. It needs to be practical and useful to someone working in Cape York or in Adelaide. I'd like it to help me work with families, the community and keep track of the latest sleeping pills, inhalants or illegal drugs as well as the latest treatments.

In response to such requests, and in a first for Australia, a handbook written with and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals has answered the call for a comprehensive resource to help clinicians address alcohol and drug issues.

The Handbook for Aboriginal Alcohol and Drug Work, publicly launched yesterday by the Governor of NSW and Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir, is written specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals.

"Workers in the field told us that they needed an easy-to-use handbook to help them meet the challenges they face every day," said Professor Kate Conigrave, a specialist in addiction medicine at Sydney Medical School and a senior editor of the handbook.

"Clinicians in the alcohol and drug field are helping people with a mix of social, physical and mental health issues, as well as with alcohol or drugs. So the same person who may suffer from alcohol withdrawal seizures may also need treatment for viral hepatitis, treatment for mental health problems because of past traumas, and may urgently need secure and safe housing."

"The clinician is trying to make all of this happen as well as supporting the person to stay away from alcohol. And all the time treatments for alcohol and drug problems are improving and changing, so clinicians need to stay up to date."

The book was created in partnership between the University of Sydney and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal agencies and health professionals. Four of the six editors are Aboriginal. All editors bring together decades of combined experience in working in urban and remote areas.

"In 1996 when I began working in the field I had a lot of questions and not a lot of places to go for answers. I'd try ringing doctors but often they were in clinics and couldn't take the call," said Steve Ella, an editor of the handbook and coordinator of the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Traineeship program for the NSW Ministry of Health.

"There is a long overdue need for a handbook like this. Sometimes a worker in the country may have to drive a person many hours to the nearest detox facility. They need this handbook to carry with them out on the road or in the community to provide them with up-to-date information on what to do."

The handbook is possible because of the close partnership between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal agencies and the University.

"We became aware of the need for this book when talking with mature age Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at the University, many of whom had already worked in the alcohol and drug field for years," said Professor Conigrave.

The result is a book which benefits from the contributions of clinicians, policy advisers and academics from across Australia, including more than a dozen authors from the University of Sydney who have expertise in a range of areas, from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder to viral hepatitis infection and HIV.

Every chapter was read and edited by an Aboriginal editor or reviewer, to be sure that it was relevant and accessible. The book also includes information on how to find reliable sources of the latest information and tips for clinical support for workers.

The handbook was first distributed to alcohol and drug professionals from around Australia at the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Conference in Western Australia in June this year and is available online. It has since been recommended as a text for trainees in the field in South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland.

The project started in 2010 with a grant from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and continued with the support of the NSW Ministry of Health.


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