Drug use can have so many negative consequences for the individual, their family, and society as a whole. One particularly worrying statistic for everyone involved with drug prevention and treatment is that deaths from drug poisoning reached their highest numbers ever in 2020, leading to various drug charities declaring the deaths a public health emergency. According to the statistics, in England and Wales alone, there were 4,561 deaths attributed to drug poisoning last year, with 2020 being the eighth consecutive year in which numbers have gone up. To put that figure into context, it shows an 800% increase over the last ten years. But how has the problem reached such an alarming scale? And what could have been done to prevent it?
In this article, we will look at who is responsible for the rise in drug-related deaths and explore potential solutions going forward.
How the system feeds addiction
When it comes to drug use, we live in a world of incredible contradictions. On the one hand, the use of illegal drugs is harshly stigmatised by society, with the criminalisation of those people caught in possession and substantial legal penalties they face justifying this negative perception. Simultaneously, there are a huge number of addictive and potentially harmful substances that are seen as perfectly acceptable by huge swathes of the population.
Over the years, the number of drugs being prescribed by doctors has rocketed. These can be just as addictive and damaging to patients as illegal street drugs, and in 2020, half of all drug poisoning deaths came from opiate-based pain medications such as fentanyl and codeine. Markedly cheaper than heroin and significantly easier and safer to obtain, this is an ever-worsening problem that requires urgent and serious action.
On top of this, many addictive substances are marketed in a way that glosses over the potential harm they can do and presents them in a wholly positive light. For the British public, alcohol is a cornerstone of our culture, and rates of alcohol addiction and its associated problems are increasing year on year. Yet, alcohol adverts continue to show people drinking and having a great time, rather than presenting the negative impact that alcohol misuse or addiction can have on people’s lives.
Addiction is a mental health disorder
Another factor in the ever-increasing number of deaths is the way that addiction is perceived and approached. Addiction is a mental health disorder, which means even people who can see the damage that drugs are doing to them can find it incredibly difficult to stop. Addiction changes the chemicals and signals in a person’s brain, causing someone who abuses large volumes of drugs to experience terrible withdrawal symptoms when they reduce their intake.
Despite common misconceptions, someone with an addiction is not simply choosing to take drugs; they are compelled to by their own mind. Society as a whole is just beginning to accept mental health issues as being on par with physical illnesses, and it is so important that addiction is viewed and addressed as such.
Who is responsible for the rise in addiction deaths?
There is no easy answer to this question and in many ways, attributing blame is not a constructive way to approach the problem. Some people naturally blame the individuals for their own drug-related deaths, arguing that everyone knows the law and that we are all well aware of the consequences of drug use. Yet, while we are all ultimately responsible for our actions, we have seen countless instances where people who have noticed their addiction reached out for help but have been unable to get it. The uplift in prescribed medication and limited education surrounding addiction have increased the likelihood of addiction developing unnoticed, while government cuts to public addiction services have had a massive effect on the accessibility of treatment. With the enormous financial burden of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems unlikely that funding is going to increase any time soon.
How to spot addiction
There are various addiction warning signs related to the use of different types of drugs, but identifying the signs early in yourself or in your loved ones can help to ensure treatment is sought before a dependency can really take hold. While physical effects may seem like the most obvious signs to look out for, they are often the most difficult to notice. For example, methamphetamine is well known for causing people’s teeth to rot, but this can take many years to occur, before which the person may already suffer drug poisoning.
It is usually easier to spot behavioural changes. Some people may become more emotional or reactive, especially when addicted to stimulants like cocaine. Heroin and other opiate use can cause the opposite effect and cause serious energy depletion and a lack of productivity. For many people, the cost of drugs can place a major financial burden on them, and so you may notice that they suffer financial difficulty or turn to unconventional means to fuel their addiction.
Keeping safe on prescription medication
For many of us, the term ‘drug addiction’ is only associated with people who take illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin, but the rise in prescription painkillers means that a broken leg or knee surgery is becoming an all-too-common pathway.
As the statistics suggest, deaths from prescribed drugs like pregabalin, gabapentin and zopiclone have all also risen significantly since last year, by 41%, 32.6% and 4.3%. The most important thing is to always follow the direction of your doctor, and if you feel like you are developing a dependency, notify them immediately. With 50% of all deaths by drug poisoning coming from opiate painkiller misuse, both patients and their medical providers need to be cautious about how these medications are used and be constantly on the lookout for signs of misuse or addiction.
How to get help
It can be very difficult to overcome drug addiction alone, and detoxing without medical assistance can be potentially dangerous. So the best way to overcome addiction and avoid preventable death is always through professional addiction treatment. There are public and private rehab facilities that can help individuals to turn their lives around, and wonderful organisations like Narcotics Anonymous that provide much needed long-term support.
No two people and no two addictions are the same, and so it is important that each individual assesses all the options available to them in order to make the right choice. NHS services are free, but as evidenced by these rising numbers, their funding has been cut substantially by consecutive governments, leaving them under-resourced and overburdened. Private rehab centres require individuals to pay for their treatment, but they often provide the best chance for recovery.
With drug-related deaths rising year on year, many changes need to be made across society, from the way addiction is perceived to the criminal penalties given to drug users. The pharmaceutical and healthcare industries also need to assess the extent to which people are now being prescribed powerful painkillers and whether there are safer alternatives or better patient care that could curtail the rise in deaths. Likewise, individuals need to be aware of the dangers of drug addiction and take responsibility on a personal level, and if they have a problem, seek professional health immediately. With a multi-faceted approach, there is a real chance to reduce the number of drug-related deaths dramatically.