Last month Addiction Dependency Solutions (ADS) held a seminal event in parliament, Addiction to prescription drugs, with the Labour shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham.
The event was a Question Time style debate on this topical issue and consisted of a panel of clinicians, service users and experts in their respective fields, with direct experience of addiction to prescription drugs and treatment services.
It was the first time an event on this issue had been held in parliament and marked a momentous day for many people in the room who had been campaigning for many years for increased awareness of the debilitating effects of addiction to prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines. Addiction to these drugs has devastating and lasting effects on individuals and their families, and the event highlighted the need for increased provision of direct and targeted treatment services for those who are addicted.
Little treatment available
Currently, there is little treatment available for those who suffer from prescription drug addiction, with only a handful of services dedicated to this issue in the UK. As a progressive charity, ADS aims to represent those who need help the most. Working with Oldham PCT and Barry Haslam of Oldham Tranx (a voluntary support group for those suffering from addiction to prescription drugs) ADS started providing an addiction to prescription drug service in Oldham in 2004, and – by working with dynamic commissioners – now provides another service in Derby that was recognised as a model of best practice at the Westminster event.
The event was chaired by Andy Burnham MP and consisted of a panel with Lady Rhona Bradley, chief executive of ADS; Dr James Davies, lecturer in social anthropology and psychotherapy at Roehampton University; Dr Jack Leach, consultant in substance misuse; Dr Richard Martin, assistant director of Public Health for Derby Council; James Sutherland, lead commissioner for public health for Derby Council; Barry Haslam, chair of Oldham Tranx and John, service member of Oldham Tranx. Each panellist had time to outline their own background, experience and views on addiction to prescription drugs before the debate was widened, and questions taken from the floor.
All the panellists were of the opinion that addiction to prescription drugs was an issue that had been buried under the carpet for too long and agreed that centralised action was needed on a national scale to offer guidance and results. Barry Haslam drew on his own experience of addiction to prescription drugs, describing the lack of help he received and the resultant health problems he had suffered. This had spurred him on to campaign vociferously on the issue for the past 20 years.
‘Placed’ on prescription drugs
One of the most striking comments of the day came from Dr James Davies. In discussing how people were often ‘placed’ on prescription drugs without getting to the root of the problem – often as a result of anxiety and stress – he said: ’Fifteen per cent of the British public at one time are on some form of prescription medication as a result of mental health issues.’ This statistic highlighted the scale of the problem, with many of these drugs addictive within four weeks and resulting in dependence in as little as six weeks.
The panel’s consensus was shared by the audience, with questions reflecting the need for increased political awareness and action. One audience member, Dr Malcolm Lader, drew on years of experience to highlight the divisive role prescription drugs were playing in our society, and called for direct treatment to curb their long-term ill-effects.
With a member of Public Health England in attendance, it was left to Andy Burnham to ask why current guidelines and protocols for services for prescription drug addiction were so weak. The PHE response was, ‘It is up to local authorities to take action on the issue following guidance from Public Health England.’ Andy Burnham responded: ‘That doesn’t answer the question. Clearly more needs to be done.’
As panellists drew on their expertise and personal stories from the audience mirrored their views, there was little doubt about the scale of the problem. Summarising, Burnham said it was time to take action on an issue that had been too long ignored in parliament. As Labour shadow health secretary, he would aim to realign health and social care as part of the NHS.
Lady Rhona Bradley said ADS would continue to ‘champion a cause that has clearly affected many in this country, and an issue that should be acted upon without haste.’
Report from Tom Whiting, development and grants officer at ADS