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By Dr Stefan Gruenert MAPS
Treasurer, APS Psychology and Substance Use Interest Group

As a profession and science, psychology has much to contribute to the understanding of substance use from theory, research and practice. Although debate continues regarding the most appropriate societal response to this issue, it is clear that the prevention of harmful substance use must focus on its underpinning social determinants and multiple risk and protective factors. Further, while many people recover from harmful substance use without any therapy, there is good evidence for a range of effective treatments to help those whose substance use has become more dependent.

Most people with substance use problems do not attend specialist alcohol and drug agencies, so competencies in assessing and treating these problems need to be widely available among psychologists and other health practitioners. It is essential that the APS contributes to the debate on alcohol and drug issues with carefully reasoned, evidence-based and realistic views, given its highly personal and political nature.

APS Position Statement 

A Position Statement on Substance Use was prepared by a specially commissioned Task Group consisting of Debra Rickwood, Lynne Magor-Blatch, Richard Mattick, Stefan Gruenert, Neos Zavrou, and Amanda Akers, in collaboration with the APS Psychology and Substance Use Interest Group. A draft of the Position Statement was presented at the 2007 APS Annual Conference to gain feedback and was then further refined. The Statement was approved by the APS Board at its March 2008 meeting and is now available on the APS website along with previous APS publications on substance use issues (www.psychology.org.au/publications/statements/substance/).

The Statement confirms that alcohol is the most abused substance in Australian society, with cannabis being the most widely used illicit drug. The Statement emphasises that people using substances in a harmful way usually experience a range of social factors that impact on their substance use and wellbeing. Consequently, a holistic approach must be taken to prevention, harm reduction and treatment. The Statement supports Australia's harm minimisation strategy which includes minimising the supply of substances through law enforcement approaches, reducing the harm associated with substance use, and minimising the demand for substances through treatment and prevention.

To reduce harmful substance use in the longer term, the Statement argues that both cultural and legislative changes are required along with targeted education. Further, prohibition responses on their own are unlikely to lead to reduced substance use over time because of the adaptiveness of human behaviour in meeting needs and desires.

APS Psychology and Substance Use Interest Group 

In addition to developing the APS Position Statement on Substance Use, the Interest Group has been involved in a number of other activities over the previous twelve months.

Media and parliamentary inquiries

In response to topical issues and specific media concerns, a number of media releases have been prepared over the past year on issues including youth binge drinking, ready-to-drink alcohol products, and alcohol, drugs and sport. Interest Group and APS staff members have undertaken radio and talk-back radio interviews in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

The Interest Group has also prepared a number of submissions for the APS to parliamentary inquiries relating to the impact of drugs on families, amphetamine type substances and ready-to-drink alcohol products.

Professional development and training

In April 2008, 60 psychologists and probationary psychologists attended a seminar in Hobart on ‘Improving family function in high risk families: The Parents Under Pressure Program' presented by Professor Sharon Dawe. The seminar was sponsored by the Interest Group and organised by Dr Raimondo Bruno from the School of Psychology at the University of Tasmania. The seminar focused on working with families in which parents have substance dependencies and a range of other complex problems.

In July 2008, the Interest Group co-sponsored an Addictions Summit in Melbourne attended by hundreds of drug and alcohol counsellors and psychologists. Keynote presentations and post summit workshops were given by an astounding line-up of renowned leaders in the addictions field including William Miller, Carlo DiClemente, Howard Shaffer, Alex Blaszczynski, Steve Allsop, Doug Sellman, Thomas McLellan, David Hodgins, Theresa Moyers and Allan Zuckoff.

Future activities

The Interest Group is keen to support a range of State and Territory forums such as seminars or film nights that raise awareness of alcohol and drug issues and their treatment. It will also continue to provide resources on its website and inform members of its activities through regular newsletters.

For further information on the APS Psychology and Substance Use Interest Group go to www.groups.psychology.org.au/psu/.