Last year, Dan Carden MP took the brave step of discussing his struggles with alcohol in a House of Commons speech. Since then, as he tells DDN, he’s become a passionate campaigner for better alcohol treatment, an end to stigma and the power of recovery communities.
‘I hope my openness today can help challenge the stigma that stops so many people asking for help,’ Dan Carden told the Commons in an emotional and widely shared speech in July 2021. ‘Nothing would mean more to me than turning the pain I’ve been through, that I’ve put my family and loved ones through, into meaningful change.’
‘I’m amazed, really, by the response I’ve had,’ the MP for Liverpool, Walton tells DDN. ‘I still get emails every week from people who’ve just seen it, or the speech has been shared in their AA WhatsApp groups or other recovery places. The number of people who’ve reached out and told me their stories and what they’ve been through has been wonderful.’
His alcohol use had been the result of ‘desperate isolation’ and ‘shutting down’ his personal life, he said in the Pride Month speech, as he had not come out as gay until he was in his 20s. He later stated that suppressing who he was had left a trauma, and he’s learned from being in recovery that ‘you’ve got to do the work to uncover what it is that’s driving these behaviours’, he says now.
‘I think everyone accepts that there’s stigma around addiction, and it took me a long time to decide to speak about it in the way I did,’ he says – he was already in his third year of recovery when he made the speech. ‘I wasn’t really expecting to do it but I saw a debate come up on Pride and I thought, “if there’s ever going to be a time to do it, this is the speech I want to do it in”.’
He’d long been aware of the impact alcohol was having on him, and had been giving up drinking for ‘a couple of months at a time, really out of necessity,’ before entering treatment. ‘I knew the damage it was doing to my body, my brain, my relationships – you might give up booze for a month or two, but you’re not actually treating the addiction.’
His first real attempt at seeking help came after a ‘particularly bad episode’, when his brother took him to an AA meeting in London. As an MP, that must have been a very stressful experience? ‘I’ll tell anyone about AA and recovery and all the rest of it these days, but going to that first meeting was terrifying,’ he says. ‘I’ve met so many people who are regular AA attendees since, and everyone goes through that fear – you can be from any profession or community, people are so fearful of the stigma. Because we don’t treat it as an illness, we treat it as a character flaw.’
It was that fear of walking into an AA meeting in the community as an MP – along with working in an institution famous for its drinking culture – that’s led him and some colleagues to set up a weekly Parliamentary estate AA meeting as a ‘safe space’ for anyone struggling with alcohol. ‘I understand that AA isn’t everyone, but this is the first step towards achieving a long-term goal – that anyone who works on the Parliamentary estate who needs support, has it’, he says.
He’s described the ‘vacuum’ of treatment when it comes to alcohol, and believes it remains the poor relation compared to drugs. While drug deaths are at an all-time high, they’re also accompanied by record increases in alcohol deaths (www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/alcohol-specific-deaths-up-almost-20-per-cent). ‘But you’ve got action being taken on drugs, the Dame Carol Black review, the additional funding, all of which I absolutely welcome,’ he says. ‘You’ve also got the gambling review and new legislation coming forward on that, and more action being taken on smoking. And nothing on alcohol.’
The new drug strategy, of course, was shaped by the recommendations of the Independent review of drugs. This is why he’d ‘love to see a full Dame Carol Black-style independent review on alcohol’, to inform the long-awaited alcohol strategy that will one day replace the decade-old current version.
‘Because you’ve got to look at everything from the industry to advertising to recovery and treatment,’ he states. And, of course, it’s such a part of our culture. I don’t want to stop people drinking, but I think we have to be honest about the very powerful role that the alcohol industry plays – that’s something that hasn’t really been looked at.’
Minimum Unit Pricing
He’s previously tabled an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill calling for minimum unit pricing to be implemented in England because ‘it’s crazy that we’re being left behind on this’, he says. ‘We know that the most harmful alcohol products are often the cheapest, and we know that alcohol does the most damage in the most deprived communities. There isn’t one thing that can be done to solve this problem, but I think proper pricing, and taxation, is a first step.’
One obstacle to reform, alongside the industry’s lobbying power, has been the way MUP is often misrepresented in sections of the media, and he’s been energetic in his efforts to put the record straight. ‘I receive a lot of correspondence from constituents concerned about the impact taxation and minimum pricing will have on the hospitality industry, and I use that as an opportunity to write back and explain that it’s not the case. Minimum unit pricing wouldn’t even touch a drink in a pub, it’s entirely focused on the most harmful forms of alcohol that you get in the off-trade. I support local pubs, I support responsible drinking, and I think the tax changes that Rishi Sunak has brought in are at least taking us in the right direction – so that the tax actually follows the strength of alcohol in the drink.’
Last year he wrote a joint letter with the Forward Trust calling for the recommendations in the Dame Carol Black review to be fully funded. While the government went a long way towards doing that with its announcement of substantial new investment late last year, a number of people have warned that unless the sector can show real results in terms of reducing deaths and crime it may well be the case that the Treasury halts the funding after the first three years (DDN, February, page 8; March, page 9). Does he think this is a real risk?
‘Honestly, I’d be amazed if the funding was removed after three years,’ he says. ‘I’ve already been to see some of the projects – like in Liverpool, with We Are With You – where the funding has come forward this year, and they’ve already got statistics to show that crime is down. We’ve had ten years of cuts, the highest drug deaths on record, and a criminal justice system that’s overflowing with people who’ve committed crimes in relation to their own drug use.’
What’s needed is a health response, he states, and he’s supportive of community sentences and some of the diversionary schemes being implemented by police and crime commissioners, which were encouraged in the Black report and endorsed by the drug strategy. ‘The criminal justice system is on its knees at the moment in terms of backlogs and prison places and all the rest of it, so this the evidence-based response that we need. “Tough on drugs” has failed as a strategy.’
So, aside from funding, what could be done to improve access to alcohol treatment? ‘One thing I’m fighting for now is a change to the Equality Act, which covers other mental health conditions, because currently addiction is excluded,’ he says. The act legally protects people from discrimination and ‘if we could make that change – so that the presumption is that if someone is suffering with addiction it can be understood to be an illness and something that support should be provided for – it would go a long way to changing the culture and making sure the proper support is delivered.’
Stigma, shame, and fear clearly remain significant barriers to treatment, however. ‘When we’re at a low point it’s hard to accept that what we’re suffering with is a chronic health condition,’ he says, which is where education and nationwide anti-stigma campaigns could help people feel less alone and ‘safe to seek help’. Early intervention is also key, he believes, which means improving GP screening, combined with a ‘no-wrong-door policy – wherever you turn up for help, you should receive the care you need, regardless of if you have history of substance use disorders’.
Obviously the places with the highest rates of drug- and alcohol-related deaths and harm, such as the North East, are also the most deprived, and he believes that improving treatment needs to be a central part of any ‘levelling up’ agenda. ‘I witness the alarming levels of unmet need and the devastating impact untreated addiction has on families and community,’ he says. ‘We cannot simply arrest our way out of the country’s addiction crisis, we cannot punish the already marginalised into recovery, and we cannot end the pointless cycle of harm without evidence-based policy.’
When it comes to recovery, people have long argued over what it really means – how would he define it? ‘It’s different for everyone and I wouldn’t try to prescribe my own routes to anyone else, but I think you’ve got to have a balance of abstinence and harm reduction. I think it’s got to be understanding this is an illness, and trying to provide the right support to the person so that it’s person-centred.’
Having come from a position where he didn’t know what recovery ‘even looked like’, he says, he’s become passionate about the power of recovery communities. ‘They’re proof that change is possible, they’re role models to us all. The more we celebrate and support recovery communities, the more people who are still suffering will ask for help. Since sharing about my own struggles, I’m dedicated to championing visible recovery.
‘Addiction is incredibly isolating, and one of the best ways to deal with that is to provide a community to someone who’s suffering,’ he states. ‘I’ve seen it work, I meet people and speak to people every week who owe their lives to recovery communities in all different forms. We live in a society where there is more and more isolation, and people face incredible struggles. Finding ways in which we can support recovery communities is the one thing that must never be left out. Ensuring that they get the support and recognition in all of this is vitally important.’