The day before actor Heath Ledger’s death, his father Kim said he was fit and healthy.
“The way Heath passed away was a shock to us, I certainly had no idea that anybody could die of something so quickly who was heathy the day before,” Ledger told The Huffington Post Australia.
His accidental overdose on prescription medication is a tragedy that occurs all too often, with four Australian dying of an overdose every day.
Non-profit awareness group ScriptWise said the majority of these deaths are caused by prescription drugs.
For Australian Overdose Awareness Week, Ledger is sharing his family’s story with the hopes of raising the profile of the problem.
“You never really can accept these things are going to happen,” Ledger said.
“I suppose the best thing you can do is try to turn a tragedy into something worthwhile that can benefit others.
“By raising the profile, it does provide me with a better feeling about it. It’s an opportunity to save somebody else’s life, unfortunately at the expense of Heath.”
Kim Ledger speaks about his son. Picture: COLE BENNETTS VIA GETTY IMAGES
Ledger’s home city of Perth has the highest rate of fatal overdose of any Australian capital city.
ScriptWise chief executive officer Bee Mohamed spent Monday morning at a Perth treatment clinic for opiate and benzodiazepine dependence.
“I’ve read all the statistics and have spoken to families who have lost a son or daughter to prescription drug overdose but to be there and talk to the people who are at that point where they’re seeking help was a real eye opener,” Mohamed said.
“What surprised me was how young a lot of these people are.
“I find the older people have developed a dependence after a really bad injury.
"In the post-hospital period they’ve not had any advice about managing pain so they’ve self-managed and it’s ended in dependence.
“For the younger generation, it’s often people who have been addicted to illicit drugs in the past and doctors haven’t known that, and they’ve prescribed anti-depressants or known addictive drugs.”
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians is this week warning prescription painkiller abuse is increasing in Australia.
The latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey found the misuse of painkillers increased from 4.8 per cent of the Australian population in 2010, to 7.7 per cent in 2013.
President of the College's Chapter of Addiction Medicine Matthew Frei said doctors needed to rethink reaching for their prescription pad.
“Doctors need to plan treatment carefully prior to considering prescribing strong opioids,” Frei said.
“In the case of non-cancer pain, once pharmaceutical opioid addiction develops, it becomes very hard to manage.
“There needs to be a clear message that these medications are for short-term use, as an adjunct to physical and psychological therapies.”
For Ledger, there's one important take home: Children should be taught the risks of prescription medications in schools.
"There are no short-term fixes," Ledger said. "This is a long-term strategy to inform the younger generation, so they can tell their parents and people around them.
"By making people aware of it, we can change the cycle."