Deaths in treatment up by almost 30 per cent

Almost 3,800 people died while in contact with drug and alcohol treatment services in 2020-21, according to statistics from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), a 27 per cent increase on last year. 

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The period covered by the figures represented a ‘uniquely challenging period in our field’s history’, said Collective Voice.

While all substance groups saw a decrease in deaths in treatment last year, this year there were increases of 20 per cent in the opiate group and 36 per cent in the non-opiate only group. The alcohol-only group also saw an increase of 44 per cent, while the non-opiate and alcohol group recorded an increase of 37 per cent. 

Much of this will have been the result of the pandemic, says OHID, with fewer people able to access inpatient detox and reductions in treatment for BBVs and liver disease. ‘It’s likely that a number of factors will have contributed to the increase in the number of service users who died while in treatment during 2020 to 2021,’ says Adult substance misuse treatment statistics 2020 to 2021. ‘These include changes to alcohol and drug treatment, reduced access to other healthcare services, changes to lifestyle and social circumstances during lockdowns, and COVID-19 itself.’

There were 275,896 adults in treatment services in 2020-21, a slight increase on the previous year. More than half were in treatment for problems with opiates, and almost 30 per cent for alcohol. Unlike previous years there was a fall in the number of people entering treatment for crack cocaine, used either with or without opiates, with the number at its lowest level since 2016-17. There was a 5 per cent increase in people entering treatment for cannabis, however, and a 6 per cent increase for benzodiazepines. Almost two thirds of people entering treatment had a mental health need, with over half requiring mental health treatment, and almost 20 per cent had a housing problem. 

The period covered by the figures represented a ‘uniquely challenging period in our field’s history’, said Collective Voice. ‘People facing drug or alcohol addiction, already a vulnerable and oftentimes isolated group, had to endure a global pandemic that radically altered how they could receive support.’ The death statistics were ‘deeply shocking’, and OHID was right to note that a number of factors were likely to have contributed to the increase, it said. ‘In the early phase of the pandemic the treatment system had to adapt almost overnight to new agile ways to deliver core interventions. And despite the heroic efforts of workers, managers, commissioners and peers, many services were forced to temporarily close their doors. The pandemic also prevented those with drug and alcohol problems from accessing the wider array of ‘safety-net’ services including primary, secondary and acute care.’

However, the reasons behind the long-term erosion of the field’s capacity to support people in need were ‘plain to see in Dame Carol Black’s recent review’, it stated. ‘This recent rise in deaths makes only more important the announcement of the cross-government drug strategy in the coming weeks.’

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