Anna’s Blog – Our CEO looks at the shocking rise in drug-related deaths

Anna’s Blog – Our CEO looks at the shocking rise in drug-related deaths

It can come as no surprise to anyone with any insight into the misuse of drugs that record levels of drug related deaths coincide with extensive cuts to rehabilitation services.

New figures show that around 56 people die every week in England and Wales due to drug abuse. Last year there were 4,359 drug related deaths according to the Office for National Statistics – the highest figure since records began in 1993.

Some politicians point to an ageing population of addicts who started using in the 1980s and 90s as an explanation to the huge rise in drug-related deaths. It’s hard to believe, though, that this can account for such an increase.

Over recent years, as the number of deaths have risen the amount spent on services has fallen. Some would argue that cuts are contributing to the number of deaths.

The total amount spent on rehab and detox services has plummeted by almost £4 million over the last four years. The Public Health Grant for local authorities actually went up during that time but as spending on drug and alcohol services is no longer ring fenced, hard pressed councils use the money to plug gaps elsewhere.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said: “The government’s austerity agenda and short sightedness in this area is failing some of the most vulnerable in society. Ministers must reverse cuts to addiction services and start treating this issue as the public health emergency it is.”

Very few people can overcome a drug or alcohol addiction on their own. Although peer support can be helpful people also need input from trained professionals. Residential rehab and detox services are often the best option for the most vulnerable addicts, who are at the highest risk of dying from drug and alcohol problems. A therapeutic residential setting takes the person away from their old habits, from dealers and friends who use. It’s a safe, structured environment, somewhere they can start again without the temptations and taunts of their previous life.

We supported a vulnerable man in the north of England who had been a drug user for many years. He had been involved in criminality to fund his addiction and his life was chaotic. He was both a frequent offender and victim of crime. We felt the only way to support him to come off the drugs was through a residential placement. The local authority agreed to fund a place and his progress was remarkable. For the first time in his adult life, he was able to care for his own physical health. He started eating well and his mental health also improved. Two years later he’s maintaining his own tenancy, feels safer and has a much more settled lifestyle.

Having seen for myself the successes of residential rehabilitation centres it is hard to watch as spending on residential drug and alcohol treatment is being significantly reduced. One of the latest casualty is Chandos House in Bristol, forced to close due to a funding crisis, leaving the city without a single residential rehab centre.

It’s not just residential treatment facing funding shortfalls, budgets for community services have also been hard hit.

“Many local services have faced cutbacks, and the reality is that outreach services barely exist anymore.We need to go where people are. When we wait for people to come to us, too many of them don’t make it,” said Mike Dixon, chief executive for the drug and alcohol charity Addaction.

The Government has commissioned an independent review of drugs, which will look at a wide range of issues, including the system of support and enforcement around drug misuse.

But whilst ministers cling to their failing, criminal justice approach and budgets for treatment are cut, it is hard to imagine how the number of deaths can be reduced.

“The case for a more compassionate harm-reduction approach has now been clear for years – and yet the government has continued to lead with tough rhetoric around law enforcement, all the while presiding over sustained cuts to local authority budgets, undermining their ability to deliver effective drug treatment services,” said Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health.