Program helps Mick come back from drug addiction, depression

PERSONAL GROWTH: Mick was given the chance to escape the dangers and destructiveness of drugs, and a prison sentence, through the MERIT (Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment) program.
PERSONAL GROWTH: Mick was given the chance to escape the dangers and destructiveness of drugs, and a prison sentence, through the MERIT (Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment) program. Marc Stapelberg

THREE years ago spiralling depression and related drug addiction brought Mick's life to a dire place.

Busted for growing pot he'd grown for his own self-medication, he faced a likely prison sentence.

In his own words, he'd hit "rock bottom".

"I realised there was not much hope ... but I needed to get back on track," he said.

Thankfully, gone are the days of punitive prison sentences.

Instead, Mick (not his real name) was able to join a program which offered him the opportunity to both reduce the severity of his sentence and change his life for the better.

The MERIT program (Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment) was pioneered on the Northern Rivers following a major drug summit in 1999 to build a bridge between the court system and the health system.

The program attempts to intervene in the cycle of drug use and crime by offering offenders support to reverse the root causes for their behaviour.

Northern NSW Local Health District MERIT program:

  • Pioneered in the Northern NSW LHD and since rolled out statewide
  • It now operates in 63 local courts across the state
  • In the last 12 months, 177 clients completed the program locally
  • They were 80% male aged mainly between 20 and 44 years
  • Most common offences were drug possession, assault, and property crime

For Mick, it worked wonders.

He spent three months in the program, which brought him a new appreciation for the root of his addictive behaviours.

Mick said the counselling on offer, group work and links to external services such as the Men and Family Centre in Lismore, gave him an opportunity to be heard and in turn imparted him with a greater sense of mindfulness.

"It accelerated my personal growth exponentially," he said.

"I was a bit more aware of my feelings. Once I had stopped using I realised my feelings were still there but I kind of developed the skill to meet them without pushing them away."

Mick realised it wasn't the drugs that was the issue, but the addiction of escaping his feelings.

"It was my attitude towards my own feelings which was the problem - I could have had an addiction to pornography," he reflected.

MERIT acting senior case manager Rob Lendrum said there was usually "an enormous amount of social and emotional pain" attached to substance abuse and drugs were simply an effective coping mechanism.

He said when they were sentenced often "nothing" had changed in their lives in relation to their addiction.

To tackle this, the MERIT program offered participants long-term support for their mental and physical health, and a tailored solution to each individual's needs.

It not only gave Mick a new lease on life but he was rewarded with a far more lenient sentence - a 12-month suspended sentence and a good behaviour bond instead of being sent to jail.



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