Over 1,000 people in Northern Ireland on NHS addiction services waiting list

More than 1,200 people are waiting for addiction services in Northern Ireland, as concern grows over increasing numbers of drug overdoses and alcohol problems following the pandemic.

The figures were revealed by Health Minister Robin Swann in response to an Assembly Written Question from Órlaithí Flynn MLA.

Leading drug and alcohol charity, ASCERT, said the waiting lists were ‘unacceptable’ and that more people needing support with addiction problems are presenting with multiple and complex issues, including trauma, or homelessness.

The health minister reported that in Belfast Health and Social Care Trust the number of assessments per month has reached 559 over a range of centres and addiction teams.

The wait for addiction support in Northern Ireland is unacceptable says leading charity, ASCERT.

ASCERT Chief Executive, Gary McMichael, warned that pressure on statutory and voluntary providers is likely to grow.

“We have seen an increase in the number of people coming to our services and we expect that to continue to be the case,” he said.

We are also finding it much more common for our clients to be experiencing multiple and complex issues in addition to their alcohol or drug use such as mental health problems, trauma, family problems or homelessness.”

While the Northern and Western trusts were not able to provide the number of assessments per month, the South Eastern Trust said they provide 90 new appointments per month and the Southern Trust has 122 new assessment places.

Last September Mr Swann launched a 10-year Substance Use Strategy called Preventing Harm & Empowering Recovery, revealing at the time that the cost to Northern Ireland of drug and alcohol related harm was more than £1bn per year.

The Public Audit Committee published a report, Addiction Services in Northern Ireland, earlier this year which highlighted long-standing problems with addiction services here.

Issues covered in the report include a failure to work across government, the length of time it has taken to produce a new substance use strategy and the high use of prescription drugs.

In addition, the report revealed the lack of reliable data on addiction services, a problem that has not been resolved for years after it was originally identified. The Committee was particularly concerned about how the Department of Health could be assured that its services were effective if the available data was not of a high quality.

The ASCERT Chief Executive warned that the impact was not fully appreciated.

“The impact of the pandemic on levels of addiction and harmful drinking and substance use in the community is seriously underestimated,” said Mr McMichael.”

More people are drinking at dangerous levels since the pandemic. There has been much talk about the impact of the experiences of the last two years on mental health and that is real, but it is also influencing a reliance on alcohol, prescription type drugs or other substances as a means to cope and self-medicate these issues.”

He also said that while charities try to provide as much support and training they can, the gap remains in what is needed from the public sector.

“Many of the people we are supporting would be more appropriate for statutory addiction services or mental health services but they can’t get access,” he explained.

“ASCERT services are often supporting them to stabilise their situation until they hopefully can get into statutory services if they still need to.

“Waiting times for statutory addiction services are often at least two months and sometimes can be much longer. This can be due to the number of people being referred for help or where there isn’t sufficient staffing capacity to cope with demand.

“There are also community based intervention services in each Trust area commissioned by the Public Health Agency designed to support people with lower levels of dependency for their alcohol or drug use and generally there are shorter waiting times for these services.”

He urged people who are concerned about their use of alcohol or other substances to get support and that waiting lists are adding to problems.

“When someone is motivated to seek help it’s really important they get support at that point, when they are willing to engage, otherwise their circumstances can get worse and they end up in crisis or they wait so long they change their mind,” he said “Far too many people drop out of waiting lists and are never seen by services because it has taken so long, and so don’t get the help they need.

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“The number of people waiting for help is unacceptable as is the time it takes to get access. There is a need for greater investment in both statutory and voluntary sector drug and alcohol services to ensure that people can get the right support when it’s needed and also that services can reach into the community to engage people at an earlier stage before they end up with serious problems.”