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Foundations of the South Pacific Program

Our clinical approach

In 1993, South Pacific Private’s founders introduced a comprehensive, trauma-informed, parallel-treatment based approach to Australia. Our programs are grounded in abstinence, moulded around the 12-step program and include a strong focus on group therapy and family systems. 

Based on the pioneering developmental trauma framework developed by Pia Mellody and the Meadows rehab centre in Arizona, our clinical approach is focused on identifying and addressing the underlying causes of addiction and dysfunction, and addressing co-occurring issues including mental illness, relational problems and childhood trauma. Our treatment approach is continually refined to reflect research developments, decades of institutional experience and the diversity of lived-experiences in contemporary Australia.

As Program Director, I’m proud of our commitment to compassionate, evidence-based, research-driven care at our 54-bed private hospital on Sydney's Northern Beaches. Below, I’ve outlined some of the key clinical underpinnings that inform our approach to clinical best practice.



Dual diagnosis / comorbidity

Australian health authorities estimate that between 50% and 75% of individuals with substance use disorders have a co-occurring mental illness – with depression and anxiety particularly common  as well as cases of C-PTSD (childhood trauma) and psychotic illnesses. Clinical best practice advice is clear: co-occurring issues should be treated concurrently, and long-term recovery plans must take relapses of both mental health issues and addiction into account. 

As pioneers of dual diagnosis treatment in Australia, our flagship, three-week inpatient program is delivered by a multi-disciplinary team of psychiatrists, psychotherapists, psychologists, GPs, nursing staff and case-workers capable of treating a broad spectrum of relational issues, mood disorders and traumas.

Developmental trauma 

At the core of the South Pacific Private’s approach to treatment is an understanding that developmental trauma, broadly defined, leads to an increased risk of dysfunction in adulthood, including personality, relational and mood disorders as well as substance and process addictions. Through an integrated five-day trauma program (Changes I) our team aims to identify and address the ongoing effects of trauma in a safe, sensitive therapeutic environment. The aim is to raise awareness of maladaptive responses, redirect focus to strengths and successes, build lasting resilience and support long-term recovery and healing. The program is centred around Pia Mellody’s Model of Developmental Immaturity.

The research which has emerged since we developed this approach continues to confirm our ongoing experience. A groundbreaking, large-scale study in the United States found that Adverse Childhood Experiences lead to increased rates of mental illness and substance misuse in adulthood. More recent research has confirmed strong correlations for mental illness, alcoholism and sexual risk-taking, and very strong correlations for problematic drug use, severe relational issues and self-harm. Studies in Australia have confirmed similar prevalence, with 50-72% of Australians reporting ACEs including household mental health issues, substance abuse, divorce, neglect or emotional, physical and sexual abuse. 

A recognition of this risk of intergenerational trauma led to our pioneering Children's Program, aimed at reducing the long-term developmental impact of a caregiver’s substance abuse or mental illness.



A strong therapeutic community

At South Pacific Private, we recognise that a dual-track therapeutic approach, which includes both group and one-on-one therapy, offers the best model for recovery. The research is clear that group work, including 12-step programs, must be a core element of effective addiction treatment. 

By creating a compassionate, open and judgment-free environment, group work can reduce the barriers of fear, shame and isolation, help clients build healthy social skills and resolve relational difficulties. Longer term, group work bonds clients to their recovery, with therapeutic forces within groups rewarding recovery (e.g. optimism, empathy, affiliation, confrontation, support, gratification and identification.)

South Pacific Private has developed a range of strategies to promote healthy communication within a highly engaged client community. Within our therapeutic community, the team facilitates the development of self-awareness, accountability, boundaries, emotional maturity and functional adult skills.

Group modalities within our program include psychoeducational training, skills development sessions, support groups, external AA and NA meetings and interpersonal process group psychotherapy. 


Healing families, repairing relationships

South Pacific Private’s integrated focus on addressing relational dysfunction and treating entire family systems marks a key point of difference. From research and experience, we know that dysfunctional relationship patterns can be a key trigger for relapse and that re-entry into a family system without guided support can be fraught with risk.

Our Family Program – in which partners, family members and friends are invited to participate in an intensive education and support program – is built into our three-week inpatient program and can also be taken as an independent four-day workshop

Our family, partner and children's programs are designed to educate families on addiction and key recovery concepts; to identify and break dysfunctional, self‐perpetuating relational patterns; to build resilience and healthy communication skills; to reduce the likelihood of relapse triggers; and to promote understanding of the maladaptive ways in which relational systems may have adjusted to accommodate or defend against an individual’s addiction or behaviour. Within intimate relationships, additional work may be required to rebuild trust and understanding, and to provide tools and strategies to set the relationship on a healthier course. 


Rehab, Continuing care and relapse prevention

South Pacific Private places a strong focus on continuing care with a dedicated Transitions Program to prepare clients for re-entry to their home, work and social environments. All patients develop a tailored recovery plan which always includes an element of ongoing group attendance.

South Pacific Private also continues to offer a range of advanced recovery Workshops and Day Programs, including family education programs and Changes II, a bespoke follow-up program to build upon the awareness and trauma-resilience skills learned in Changes I. This extended commitment to ongoing care has been evidenced to support better outcomes for long-term recovery and is a critical component of all our treatment plans. 

Our aim is for clients to leave our programs equipped with long-term recovery skills, backed by a resilient support network, armed with deeper insight of the impacts of trauma and ready to pursue a tailored, sustainable long-term recovery plan. 

To speak with South Pacific Private about referrals, or to check whether a particular patient may be suitable for our programs, call us seven days on 1800 063 322. To stay informed, sign up to our newsletter here.

Australia’s Leading Treatment Centre

Cutting-edge treatment for addiction, trauma and mental health.

Mental Health Trauma and PTSD

What People Don’t Understand About PTSD

PTSD isn’t always like the movies

The most widely held understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is one which has been popularised by film and television. It’s a version characterised by flashbacks and panic attacks, almost exclusively following acutely violent or threatening events. 

This is a very real condition which can have a significant and debilitating impact on individuals, especially those whose work routinely exposes them to such trauma. While such responses to trauma in the short term are normal, it's categorised as a ‘disorder’  when symptoms persist, recur or intensify for months, or begin to interfere with our ability to function normally in our daily lives.

But there’s another and far more common form of PTSD which is less well understood, and it’s called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or ‘C-PTSD’. 

C-PTSD describes the impact of ongoing, longer-term forms of trauma which occur during developmentally important periods of life, such as childhood or young adulthood, or at other times of extreme vulnerability. Rather than a singular threatening event, this form of trauma is often inflicted by individuals intentionally and often involves a power imbalance such as older-younger, parent-child, teacher-child or boss-employee.

Examples of such trauma may include parental neglect, a parent’s drinking or substance addiction, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, the death, imprisonment or separation of a loved one, or instances of physical abuse, sexual abuse or emotional abuse. “Trauma from our childhoods, especially early childhood, has an especially deep impact because it’s inflicted while our social, emotional and physical responses and identities are still developing,” says Tori McCarthy, a senior therapist at Sydney's South Pacific Private, an addiction and mental health tretment centre with a special focus on trauma.



Understanding Complex PTSD

“Trauma that an individual perceives as intentionally inflicted, and when it occurs in an intimate, interpersonal relationship, can have a long-lasting negative impacts,” McCarthy says. Sexual or physical abuse from a caregiver or authority figure can have especially deep impacts, even if memories of the events have faded, been blocked out or become jumbled. “That kind of trauma wreaks havoc with our notions of trust, our sense of self and ability to maintain healthy relationships.”

Several symptoms of C-PTSD and PTSD are quite similar, they may include:

  • Hyperarousal, which describes being easily startled, on high alert or feeling an ongoing sense of threat
  • Intrusions, which describe past traumatic experiences recurring in our thoughts, and are sometimes described as flashbacks.
  • Avoidance, which describes a defence mechanism which may include withdrawing from others, avoiding emotional triggers, or numbing feelings with substances, behaviours, addictions or self-harm.

Symptoms which are more unique to C-PTSD include:

  • Emotional dysregulation, which describes struggling to control our mood and emotions.
  • Negative self-concept, which describes a persistent feeling of worthlessness and defeat as well as extreme feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Disturbance in relationships, which describes ongoing difficulties in forming and sustaining relationships, including within friendships, partnerships, families and the workplace.


Trauma's Long-lasting impact

McCarthy says that because C-PTSD symptoms can persist for years after the trauma and last deep into adulthood, they can be mistaken for inherent personality characteristics or other mental health issues. Such symptoms may include an unhealthy relationship with shame, enduring sadness and loneliness, issues with body image and self-worth and/or an ongoing search for, or reliance upon a ‘saviour’.

“Close friends and family members, including the individuals themselves, may not realise that the challenges they’re experiencing in adulthood actually stem from trauma experienced in childhood or early adulthood,” McCarthy says. “In our rehab programs at South Pacific, we pay special attention to it because C-PTSD can often lead to addictions or other mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. If you don’t treat it directly and just focus on medication or detox, then the driving cause will remain unresolved.”

Just like PTSD, C-PTSD is treatable, and there is hope for survivors of ongoing trauma.

“Treatment includes equipping patients with healthier coping strategies and mindfulness techniques to lessen the impact of symptoms, as well as raising their own awareness of how their responses to situations in adulthood may stem from the impact of trauma,” McCarthy says. 

“Compassionate, delicate therapy by a therapist or psychiatrist can also aid in addressing unresolved aspects of trauma,” she says. The aim is to help individuals develop healthier relationships, a more balanced approach to their self-worth and increased resilience.

“It can be a challenging but rewarding process for both therapists and patients – it can be a real journey,” McCarthy says. “There’s a reason it’s known as ‘complex’ PTSD.”

Australia’s Leading Treatment Centre

Cutting-edge treatment for addiction, trauma and mental health.

Mental Health

The Loneliness Epidemic

It started long before cOVID-19

I give a simple greeting, but it invites a deluge of pent up emotion. 

“How are you?” I ask over Zoom. Her large eyes begin to well with tears. “Oh God,” she says, reminding herself to breathe, tears beginning to stream down her face. “I’m just so lonely.”

I'm in Sydney but she's in lockdown interstate, and it’s tougher on her than most. She’s facing her early recovery period alone, overcoming a serious substance use addiction while also battling the urge to act on her other addiction, food, which has dogged her all her life.

It’s something we in the recovery field are seeing more and more: Loneliness is on the rise, and it’s having real health impacts.

The research backs that up. Studies have shown that loneliness poses a similar risk of premature death to smoking or obesity. It is a key indicator of early cognitive decline and can have real, physical impacts on our cardiovascular health. Teenagers and young adults in their early 20s are especially vulnerable, as are older people over 75.

Public health officials are starting to take loneliness more seriously too, with messaging campaigns underway in the US, UK and Australia. The London School of Economics estimates that for every dollar invested in loneliness prevention, the community saves two to three dollars down the track.



While COVID-19 has led to a spike in isolation, the epidemic of loneliness started long before, and it’s been hitting the recovery community especially hard.

That’s because we’re wired for connection, it is the one thing that helps us soothe, be felt, be heard and understood. As British author Johann Hari says, “Loneliness is not the physical absence of other people: you can be surrounded by people and be lonely. It is the feeling that you are not sharing anything meaningful with other people.”

The 12-step recovery program is built on connection, and it seems that from the many stories I hear, that this is what we all crave (and not only in the midst of lockdown). So make a habit of saying hello to people in the street, say hi to your barista, strike up a conversation at the dog park. You just never know how much you will lift your own mood and theirs, or how much extra confidence it might give you to develop more substantial connections down the line.

I tell this to my client on Zoom. We talk. I work to soothe the pain, support her in sitting with her feelings, reminding her to breathe, to let emotions flow in, and to release them out. 

We develop a plan of action. To reach out to a friend, to walk every day, and to ring another friend to recap the small seemingly insignificant things in her day – it’s about solidifying connections, even while trapped in isolation. It may be just a subtle shift, but it’s already making a difference, building confidence, and helping break the cycle of loneliness.

Australia’s Leading Treatment Centre

Cutting-edge treatment for addiction, trauma and mental health.

Recovery and the 12 Steps Drug & Substance Abuse South Pacific Private News

From Meth Addiction To Recovery

The medicine had become my poison

I came to the front door for rehab at South Pacific Private in Sydney's Northern Beaches with a $500 a day ice addiction and pot dependency which I needed to get myself to sleep each evening. Despite the severity of the situation, I had little idea how sick I was back then. 

I didn’t come because I had some spiritual awakening, I didn’t have a light-bulb moment, it was simply that the drugs stopped working. There is a saying in Narcotics Anonymous that “chemicals medicate pain.” For me, the drugs had long stopped medicating – the medicine had become my poison. 

I didn’t use ice to enhance my Saturday nights, I used so I wouldn’t think, feel or dream. For a while, the chemicals ticked those boxes. For a while, I thought I was the puppet master changing my world both instantly and dramatically. I didn’t notice that I had morphed into a slave to a substance I thought I needed more than oxygen.



On my third night in rehab, during a medically supervised detox, I went into a psychotic fit of involuntary spasms. An ambulance was called and I was taken to Manly Hospital. The next few days were spent having brain scans to determine whether I was epileptic and was suffering fits. They proved negative, it was the beginning of my body detoxifying.

Recovery isn’t always a straight line. I stayed clean for three hours after my first admission. After my second admission, I stayed clean for seven months before a single case of relapse. I came into my third admission after three months clean, and was sent back to rehab by my GP who said I was on the verge of a major relapse and needed to go somewhere safe.

“The only courageous thing I did was ask for help and admit that if I had no idea how to stop using, maybe someone else did.”

My diagnosis for that third admission was 'complex grief.' In the space of just a week, my ex-wife had died prematurely of a rare cancer, an intimate relationship collapsed and my best friend moved overseas.

That third visit was significant because of the depth of the work I was able to focus on to resolve issues of intimacy, avoidance and relationships. Once I was clean, I was able to focus my attention on addressing more substantial issues. I had the opportunity to ‘re-parent’ my inner child, which raised my awareness of how my childhood experiences had led to destructive coping mechanisms in later life.

I learned more about my issues with avoidance and adapted behaviour, and how I could work on them going forward. After that inpatient stay, I was fortunate to engage with the Transitions Program for three months, four days a week.

Writing this now, I am nearly six and a half years clean. I worked through a 12-step program and began my journey by doing a meeting a day for two years, and ringing my sponsor every day for that period. 



I thought recovery from addiction was a 10-day detox focused on switching from extreme use to a more manageable diet of substances. I never signed up for abstinence nor for a deep searching personal inventory, but that’s what I got. I now recognise that it’s the only way I could have found freedom from the addiction cycle, which had become a soul-destroying nightmare.

I learnt at South Pacific Private that early recovery takes about five years, and have discovered that this is a journey you should never travel alone, that it demands a comprehensive support network. The only courageous thing I did was ask for help and admit that if I had no idea how to stop using, maybe someone else did.

If you’re at the beginning of your journey and thinking about rehab for the first time – or struggling with relapse further down the track – reach out today. Freedom is out there, if you take that first step.

Australia’s Leading Treatment Centre

Learn more about addiction and recovery with South Pacific Private.