Australian Overdose Statistics: An Interview with John Ryan

The latest Australian overdose statistics (2021)

This is blog 9 of 10 blogs in the overdose awareness and overdose prevention series.

The 31st of August is International Overdose Awareness Day.

We had the privilege of interviewing the Penington Institute’s CEO, John Ryan, about the latest Australian overdose statistics revealed in the Penington Institute’s 2021 Australian Overdose Report.*

*Australian Overdose Report publication date: 31st of August 2021.

Interview with John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute

John Ryan Penington Institute Interview on Overdose Awareness Day

Interview topic: Release of the 2021 Australian Overdose Statistics Report

Thank you, John Ryan, for your team’s efforts to raise awareness about this very important public health topic.

A topic that — as acknowledged in the latest Australian overdose statistics report — is misunderstood.

And this topic definitely needs more attention, because overdose losses are likely to impact a large number of us at some point in our lives.

The 2021 Australian Overdose Report indicates that overdose deaths in Australia are, indeed, increasing.
  • The majority of overdose deaths are unintentional.
  • Thousands of accidental overdose deaths could have been prevented. 

Sadly, despite thousands of unintentional overdose deaths — overdose prevention programs remain grossly underfunded in Australia.

  • There is a desperate need for further research funding, and community-wide prevention programs, to help reduce overdose deaths — and save more lives.
  • And we also need community-wide support for individuals impacted by the sudden loss of a loved one to an accidental overdose event, including reducing the stigma that surrounds the thousands of premature, preventable overdose deaths in our Australian communities.

Please support overdose prevention programs and research by the Penington Institute, a leading drug-safety/drug-overdose education group in Australia. 

This interview with John Ryan is part of a 10-article blog series on overdose risks. We hope that by bringing attention to the latest overdose statistics in Australia, and by informing communities about unrecognised risks of overdose toxicity, we can help reduce stigma, open conversations, and inspire further funding and community donations for overdose prevention programs. Donate to the Penington Institute – every dollar counts when saving lives.

John Ryan | 2021 Interview

2021 Interview with John Ryan regarding Overdose Statistics and Overdose Prevention Research

John, thank you again for taking the time to answer our questions in relation to the latest overdose death statistics in Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2021.

Australian Overdose Report: 2021 statistics

Click here for media resources and news articles on overdose trends; and to request a copy of the latest Australia’s Annual Overdose Report (2021)

Overdose Awareness Day – Interview Question #1

Overdose risks seem to have changed in recent years.

There has been a change in overdose statistics in recent years, particularly in relation to age groups that remain vulnerable to overdose risk (such as overdose deaths amongst older cohorts and other demographics being researched).

What factors are likely influencing these changes in overdose risks, including for people in their 50s and 60s and beyond?  

John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute:

“As Australia’s population ages, we’re seeing more overdose deaths among people in their 50s and 60s and above and an increase in the median age in the overdose statistics.

At the same time, there’s been an increase in deaths due to poly-drug use – where multiple drug types are involved. These deaths most commonly involve benzodiazepines and pharmaceutical opioids – drugs that are prescribed by doctors to help treat conditions like anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain, which can be common among older people.

We also know that prescriptions for these types of drugs have increased over time, so it’s unsurprising that we’re seeing increases in overdose deaths among older cohorts.

There is a lot of talk about prescription monitoring of these medications, but it’s not a silver bullet.

It can’t stop people from accidentally mixing their medications or taking too much — or giving their pills to friends who can’t access the medicines they need. There is also a risk that doctors become risk-averse, and cease treatments; leading to sometimes terrible outcomes — including more dangerous drug-taking [behaviours].

“We need better community awareness that it’s not just young people who are dying from an overdose.

It’s the elderly woman down the street who confuses her daily dosing. It’s the retired tradie who takes strong painkillers to deal with a lifetime of back pain.

It’s everyday people like you and me.” John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute.

“That’s why Penington Institute created its Life Savers website – to provide information to everyday people about opioids and opioid dependence.”

Visit the Lifesavers page for opioid dependence information and overdose prevention information:

Overdose Awareness Day – Interview Question #2

purple ribbon overdose prevention - interview with John Ryan (2021) - Australian overdose statistics

Minimising risks of overdose harms from illicit drug use 

Thank you for that answer, John.  

A number of us have known at least one person who died of the effects of an unintended overdose.

I keep hearing about young adults taking ‘party drugs’, and ending up in hospital emergency rooms, or in the morgue.

They weren’t trying to overdose – they were trying to “experiment” with drugs. And the so-called ‘war on drugs approach‘ — as noted in your reports — hasn’t worked!


So how can we reduce public health harms from young adults consuming ‘GHB’ (Ecstasy), knowing that they will? In other words, the DO’s and DON’Ts of preventing substance use harms? 

Is pill testing the answer?

John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute:

“It is very difficult to eliminate harms from illicit drugs. But there are many opportunities to reduce harm — and we are not exploiting those opportunities enough.

GHB use, or drugs similar to GHB, have increased in the last couple of years. Whenever new drug consumption patterns emerge, we should be quick to find ways to reach consumers with advice about risks — and how to mitigate them — as well as pathways for support.

That is one reason that we put together a campaign for GHB last year, which you can read about at

But there wasn’t an adequate budget to promote it even in Victoria, let alone the rest of Australia, where GHB is also a challenge.”

Overdose Awareness Day – Interview Question #3

Reducing stigma, saving lives – raising awareness of overdose risks

“Time to remember. Time to Act.”


There’s certainly a disturbing level of underfunding in relation to overdose research given this is an important public health concern. Plus, there are widespread misperceptions in relation to overdose deaths — that overdoses “only happen to certain types of people”.  These misperceptions need correction.

As a wise Medical School University Professor once advised:

“Anyone can become dependent on a substance when certain factors converge. It’s not always about trauma or a PTSD response. People who think drug addictions relate only to traumatic experiences or to ‘personality types’ are misinformed.”

Source: George Klein

Overdose prevention research/drug-safety education programs in Australia are lacking resources; despite that deaths from overdoses exceed ‘road toll’ motor vehicle fatalities.

And I was a bit surprised (and saddened), today — being International Overdose Awareness Day — that there seemed to be such a limited number of posts on LinkedIn relating to overdose awareness and prevention measures. Because an accidental overdose death could happen to any of us — or to any of our loved ones or associates. Including children, partners, friends, teachers, colleagues, employees, neighbours.  The list goes on.

Does the lack of social media discussions regarding overdose losses relate to stigma?  


Download the 2021 report on Australian overdose statistics and public health harms.

You can also watch the brief video summary of the report at the link below (or watch a brief summary on Australian overdose statistics on YouTube).


Read the blog on global overdose statistics.

Review the 10-part series of overdose-awareness blog articles (Australia).


Overdose stigma: the role of the media in overdose harm prevention measures  (journalism resources)


To reduce stigma in relation to overdose risks, what words and terms would you like the media to use when reporting on overdose risks?

John Ryan, CEO of the Penington Institute:

“There’s an enormous amount of stigma in the community about people who use drugs. They’re seen as scary and dangerous – not ‘people like us’.

But we know that stigmatising people who use drugs only serves to make drug use worse. Stigma means that people who want help with their drug use are afraid to seek help.

And because of stigma, there is often a lack of appropriate health care.

It means that people won’t admit to friends and family if they have a problem. And it means that we can’t talk openly with our kids about what’s going on in their friendship groups.

If we treat drug use as the health issue that it is, then we can encourage open and honest conversations. We know that the media have a huge role to play here.

Instead of sensationalising drug use and demonising people who use drugs, when they talk about overdoses, they should bear in mind that every overdose death is preventable; and every statistic is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother.

Thank you, John Ryan and the Penington Institute research teams for increasing community awareness about overdose risks — and working towards overdose prevention education in order to save more Australian lives.

As you note in the video – “This overdose epidemic is one of the leading causes of deaths for all age groups. We can’t arrest ourselves out of [the overdose epidemic/overdose crisis]. So let’s start talking about what needs to change. It’s time to focus on what we can do effectively to manage the safe use of drugs.”


Get involved in Overdose Awareness and Prevention efforts

overdose awareness day


Please support overdose prevention research by the Penington Institute.

Get involved with International Overdose Awareness Day.


Connie May MHST and the PharmOut Team

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Video summary of overdose statistics and Australian population demographics

Link to the 2021 Australian Overdose Statistics Report

Click here to request the 2021 Australian Overdose Report from the Penington Institute.

Return to our blog pages for additional discussions about overdose awareness and prevention.

Please support overdose prevention research by the Penington Institute.
Thank you for bringing awareness to this important topic.