Drug use in the UK
According to the UK government’s findings, 11.7% of black people use illicit drugs (only 9.2% higher than white people in Britain). Yet, not even 1% of the total number of people being treated for drug and alcohol addiction in the UK are black. When you also consider that alcohol use affects black and white people equally, this disparity between substance use and addiction treatment in black communities becomes even more concerning.
Reasons for disparity
Drug and alcohol addiction statistics in Britain highlight many factors that contribute to the disparity between the number of people who need treatment and the number of people receiving it. According to a study conducted by the University of Central Lancashire, black people in Britain were more likely than other ethnic groups to be:
- living in poverty
- caught up in the criminal justice system
- have physical health problems
- excluded from school
All of these issues can be both triggers for addiction and obstacles that prevent black people from accessing addiction treatment services. This double-edged sword is further sharpened by problems that disproportionately affect black people and black communities. These include cuts to the NHS services, mental health and cultural influences.
Cuts to NHS services
In February 2016, Theresa May’s first budget as Prime Minister allotted only £10 Billion of funding to the NHS despite it already being in a £22 Billion hole. Many argued at the time that such deep cuts would disproportionately affect the most vulnerable members of society, including those who suffered from mental health problems or drug addiction. At a time when funds for mental health services were already scarce, the new budget put added pressure on the system, and with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic seeing NHS funding slashed even further, those suffering from mental health and addiction conditions have been left struggling to access treatment.
As with all the government’s austerity measures, these cuts disproportionately affect the country’s poorest areas the most. As these are majority black and ethnic minority areas, it is no wonder that people in those communities struggle to get the help they need.
Addiction and mental health are often two sides of the same coin. Addiction is both a mental illness in its own right and used as a coping method for those suffering from mental health conditions. Unemployment, poverty and increased crime rates are all factors that can cause higher rates of mental illness, which means that black communities have greater numbers of people who are suffering from depression, social anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In fact, black people in Britain are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people.
Furthermore, in the last couple of years, incidents like the George Floyd killing in the US have shone a light on the inequalities that black communities face on a daily basis. These inequalities do not just exist in the US but are also keenly felt by black and minority ethnic people in Britain.
Racial tensions heightened during the Brexit debate, and rhetoric from prominent politicians and public figures in Britain and abroad increased in prejudice language and sentiment. Likewise, the Covid-19 Pandemic caused further racial tensions in the UK and abroad. Discrimination and assault of Asians increased globally, while Covid-19 vaccine uptake amongst black communities in the UK is still far lower than among whites, which many experts put down to a lack of trust in the authorities. Some explain this as the inevitable result of years of neglect and inequality that black and ethnic minority communities have experienced in the UK. As addiction is often used as a coping mechanism for trauma (such as that caused by experiencing racism or generational social injustice), substance use and addiction rates are inevitably higher in those communities.
There are also certain cultural practices within black communities themselves that contribute towards substance abuse rates being so high among black people in Britain. For example, while many white communities in the UK have moved away from religion and adopted atheism or agnosticism, religion still plays a large part in many black communities in the UK. Some religious groups and cultures still view mental health and addiction as shameful, which can mean that sufferers do not seek help out of fear of being shunned by family or local communities. While addiction still carries stigma across the UK in general, and most people find it hard to admit they need help, the religious aspects of black communities add another obstacle to getting treatment.
The stigma of addiction and mental health that still exists, plus increased societal and personal risk factors that these communities face, results in both an alarmingly high rate of undiagnosed mental health conditions and a significant number of people within the black community who are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Until these underlying causes can be addressed, the issue of addiction within black communities is unlikely to go away.
Another factor that needs addressing is that effective education surrounding addiction and the dangers of prescription medication is severely lacking in black communities. This is mainly due to a symptom of the funding gap between inner-city schools, which often cater to black communities compared to schools in predominantly white areas. As with so many societal problems, the solution always starts with education, so it is vital that the government takes steps to improve the situation. There are various ways these necessary improvements in addiction education can be made, such as ensuring that schools have the necessary resources to educate students about addiction, increasing awareness surrounding available treatment and methods of recovery, and changing how we talk about addiction. Being aware of the language we use both online and offline is key to removing the stigma from addiction and making people feel more confident about getting the help they need.
According to mentalhealth.org, some of the factors that prevent black people from accessing mental health and addiction treatment services include:
- Not identifying that they have a mental health condition due to the stigmatisation of mental health in their community
- Not knowing that there is help available to them or not knowing how or where to access it
- Issues caused by language
- A lack of trust in authorities and government healthcare services
- Reliance on friends and family rather than addiction treatment professionals
- Financial restrictions
- A lack of understanding about the black experience from white professionals
To help address some of these issues, the government first needs to ensure that black communities are made aware of the addiction and mental health services available to them. This awareness should begin at a young age with local police or trusted community figures coming into schools and speaking to children about the dangers of drug and alcohol use and how to seek help. There is also a huge opportunity for people to make a difference in their own communities. If you have experience with addiction or mental health, get in touch with local youth and support groups to see if there is a way to share your knowledge and experience.
UKAT partners with schools across the UK to help educate students on the dangers of addiction and break the generational cycles of substance use. Continuing to educate students and on health and mental impacts will prevent damage to individuals and communities in the long term.
What is the solution?
In order to reduce the rates of addiction in the black community and to increase the number of people who seek addiction treatment services, a holistic approach is needed at both a government and local level. First and foremost, at a government level, societal inequality needs to be rebalanced so that the socioeconomic causes of addiction no longer disproportionately affect black and minority ethnic communities. This means better schools, job opportunities, housing and a realistic chance of upward social mobility.
On a local level, it means increasing the availability and awareness of addiction treatment services and taking steps to improve the education surrounding mental health and drug use within black communities. This needs to be done in conjunction with community leaders to help bridge the trust gap which has arisen due to the neglect and discrimination black people have experienced at the hands of those in power in Britain.
Once these major shifts in the societal approach towards addiction and mental health in black communities have been made, then we will start to see more people reaching out for the help which is so desperately needed.