I attended a recent event held in the Maldron Hotel in Derry. The event which was organised by the Strabane AYE Project and chaired by Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher consisted of an information session followed by a broad discussion on mental health, drugs misuse and addiction.
I can honestly say that this event was one of the most informative sessions I have ever attended with the focus on a proactive and pragmatic approach to the growing drugs and addiction crisis. Communication, education and less condemnation was the general message from those who have experienced addiction, from organisations who work with those suffering from addiction and from Foyle Search and Rescue who in many cases deal with the aftermath.
Starting the discussion was Brendan Magee a drugs counsellor from Dublin who has personal experience of drug addiction. Brendan grew up as one of eight children in a home where domestic violence was prevalent which had a profound impact on him. Brendan who is now 12 years free of drugs provided a contribution which was truly inspirational and proof that there is life after addiction with determination and essentially, statutory and community support.
The next speaker was Fr Peter McVerry who began his address with advising the audience that ‘drugs are here to stay’ and explained that the problem is not just confined to young people from poorer areas. And, with the levels of profit to be made, the situation is set to get worse which is why we need to be educating young people into the dangers of drugs .
In his address Fr McVerry outlined how we as a community need to stop marginalising people affected by drug and substance misuse and that we need to start treating drugs misuse as a social and medical problem. A problem which ultimately requires investment in medical centres, qualified staff and after care instead of relying on the criminal justice system as a means of dealing with issues that require medical care as opposed to criminalisation.
Next to address the audience was Stephen from Foyle Search and Rescue. Through his contribution Stephen gave some background information on the work carried out by Foyle Search and Rescue and provided the following statistics:
In 25 years:
130 people died in the river
330 people have been rescued
3000 people were stopped from entering the river
Last year alone Foyle Search and Rescue dealt with 338 incidents
17 people entered the river
317 people were found in distress, some as young as 14-16, the majority of which were alcohol and drugs related
7 people died after entering the river
Stephen further spoke of how the assistance provided by Foyle Search and Rescue in respect of safeguarding those in crisis consists of referring people to the police or hospital from where they can be discharged within hours. Stephen described this as totally inadequate.
Dessie Kyle from HURT provided background information on HURT and outlined information on a range of accredited courses they regularly offer in a bid to increase education on drugs misuse and addiction. Dessie when speaking about the lack of resources raised issue the fact that a funding application for a Crisis Intervention Service from HURT in conjunction with Foyle Search & Rescue was rejected via the OFMDFM Social Investment Fund 5 years ago. Dessie as with the other panellists believes that criminalising people with addiction problems is not the answer but that education and investment are key to addressing these issues.
The next speaker was Tommy Canning representing the Northlands Centre. Northlands was established 40 years ago in the city in response to the levels of alcohol addiction. Tommy outlined how although initially founded to address alcohol addiction Northlands also deals with the growing epidemic of prescription drugs misuse something later touched on by Psychotherapist Liam Stewart who was in attendance from the charity Heal the Hurt. Tommy described addiction as the ‘Cinderella of the Health Services’ with this area continually overlooked and under resourced. Tommy also asked that people don’t narrow the discussion on addiction to young people as this is an issue effecting older people too. And again, criminalisation is not the answer.
The message shared by the panellists and through contributions from the floor was that the something needed to happen to address the mental health problems, drug use and addiction crisis and that we as a society need to treat these issues as social and medical problems. It is totally unacceptable that prisons are being used to detain those who are all too often in need of medical intervention. From the criminal justice system rehabilitation and reintegration becomes more difficult with the added burden of a criminal record and needs not being properly met whilst in prison. These views are also shared by senior members of the justice system here.
In an interview with local Magistrate Judge Barney McElholmon 8th December 2017 in the Derry News he talked at length about mental health, addiction and the law. In this article McElholm also outlined ‘the lack of a rehabilitating institution to which he can refer people with mental health and addiction issues, rather than simply consigning them to prison.’
In relation to dual diagnosis which is the term applied to people with mental health and addiction problems Judge McElholm had this to say:
“The fact is that people have these dual problems of mental health and addiction issues that it’s very hard to get people back onto a normal path from. But putting them in prison for short periods of time, we, as judges, have come to realise is a waste of time.”
In 2017 talks took place between the departments of justice and health with regard to how to tackle the problem of mental illness in prisons. In an address to the Stormont Assembly the then Justice Minister Clare Sugden advised that Since November 2015, there have been five deaths in custody in Northern Ireland, four relating to mental health issues. On 17 November 2016, the prison population totalled 1,533. Of these, 417 were recorded as having a mental illness, and a further 740 prisoners were recorded as having an addiction. That amounts to just over 75% of the prison population.
The Governor of Maghaberry prison is on record stating that prisons are not suitable for dealing with many of those sent there. This is hardly surprising when you consider a recent article from the Detail which outlined the confusion over whether or not a strategy to tackle drugs in the prisons here had been implemented. This as the figures at that time showed that the abuse of prescription medication by prisoners was posing a greater challenge than illicit Class A drugs.
In the midst of all this and from a North West point of view there is the ongoing issue of a proposed Crisis intervention service for the city, something I have touched upon on a few occasions. This proposed service is being spearheaded by Derry Strabane District Council who allocated an initial £40,000, since increased to £80,000 with an additional £10,000 from the Western Health Trust. Once again I would express my dismay at not only why the Council is spearheading and funding something which is clearly the remit of Stormont, but that £50,000 or £90,000 is considered an adequate level of funding for such a service when the annual cost of detaining a prisoner based upon 2016 figures is £57,643.
What is also worth noting is that out of 1,624 prisoners released during 2012/13 – (the most recent figures available.) 50.7% of drug offenders - 109 out of 215 released reoffended. Just imagine if 50%(54) of those drug offenders released did not reoffend it would save an estimated £3,112,722 and those funds were put into crisis intervention services and community based drug intervention and education services!
I do want to also state that despite my criticism I applaud Derry Strabane Council for their efforts on this, however this is something that the Health Trust should be implementing in partnership with those agencies within the community & voluntary sector who have a proven track record.
A key fact that also needs taken into consideration is the transgenerational impact of the troubles something which was raised at the event by Patricia Campbell a Mental Health Nurse and Trade Union Activist. This is something author David Bolton a retired social worker and senior manager in the health service addresses in his book Conflict, Peace and Mental Health: Addressing the Consequences of Conflict and Trauma in Northern Ireland, in his book he outlined how traumatic experiences have affected the lives of more than 210,000 people in the North stating that the North had the highest levels of PTSD among a number of countries that experienced conflict, including Israel, South Africa and the Lebanon.
With the number of deaths attributed to suicide since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement surpassing the number of lives lost during the near forty year conflict serious consideration must be given to the transgenerational impact of trauma on many of those suffering addiction problems.
There are many factors which will need taken into consideration if we are to begin to properly address the addiction issue, but we do need to start somewhere, a baseline should be exploring successful models from elsewhere coupled with the understanding that there is the need to look at this in a holistic context. For me the key word is hope. For as long as people lose hope because of lack of opportunity, the impact of the troubles, a lack of resources, are uneducated about drugs and a whole plethora of factors then they may potentially fall foul of the curse of addiction.
Thursday night’s meeting for me was a great starting point in a dialogue that could ultimately change and save lives.