Alcohol addiction – a report by James Tait
There exists a ‘Why would we give money to help those people?’ attitude in Northern Ireland in regards to alcoholics, according to Dr. Claire Armstrong.
Dr. Armstrong, the Director of Addiction NI, believes that those suffering with alcohol addiction are often overlooked as a charitable cause and wants to raise public awareness of the growing problem.
It is a view shared by recovering alcoholic John, whose name has been changed for identification purposes. He says, “The majority of people are too quick to criticise people like myself. Alcoholism is a disease and those suffering should not be blamed or judged. Not everyone realises it, but alcoholism is progressive. You can never totally recover and go back to the odd drink.”
Rise in alcohol related deaths
There is evidence to suggest that alcoholism is an ever-growing problem in Northern Ireland – client numbers at Addiction NI alone have double in the past five years, and recent figures from the Department of Health indicate that Northern Ireland’s drink culture is affecting public services and cutting lives short. According to these figures, there has been an increase over the past 10 years in alcohol related hospital admissions. There are now over 12,000 of these admissions throughout Northern Ireland per year, piling the pressure onto hospital and paramedic staff. The number of alcohol-related deaths has risen by around 30% in the last decade and is up to almost 300 per year.
Dr. Armstrong was not surprised by these figures, and was keen to add to them. “It affects one in four families in Ireland and it is also now the third leading cause of premature death and ill health in Northern Ireland.”
The topic of alcohol has been heavily featured in the news recently, most notably when the body of 20 year-old Joby Murphy was recovered from the River Lagan in Belfast in February. He had been attending a Snow Patrol concert at the Odyssey arena before going to the Beach Club with friends. It is believed he later walked across the bridge at the Lagan Weir and fell in while heavily under the influence of alcohol. This came just two months after 21 year-old Christopher Connor was found dead at the derelict Montague Arms Hotel in Portstewart after a night out socialising in the nearby Havana club.
A concern for all ages
Dr. Armstrong continued, “We feel it is a concern that alcohol is more accessible than it ever was during all the years we have been running as an organisation. It strikes me a lot that in the 34 years we have been running, the cost of alcohol has dropped by 62%. As it is more accessible, more people are drinking to excess because they feel it is there.”
Dr. Armstrong also highlighted that alcohol is not just a problem for young people, but for people of all ages. “It certainly affects all age groups. More attention is often focused on younger peoples’ drinking than older peoples’ drinking, and there’s also a group that is often regarded as the ‘hidden’ group in the middle of people who can hold a job down, hold a mortgage down, a family down, but yet are still drinking to excess during that whole period. It does affect all age groups; just some age groups are more widely talked about.”
Recovering alcoholic John also stressed that alcohol could become a problem for anyone. “Of course anyone can become a victim. In a lot of cases there is a trigger event that sets it off, but in others there is no such trigger. The disease does not care who you are or what your situation is. It will isolate you and play with your mind.”
Rob Phipps, a member of the Health Development Policy Branch, reiterated the scale of the problem that had to be overcome but pointed towards some encouraging figures. “The proportion of men in Northern Ireland who drink over the recommended weekly limit has fallen from 33% in 2002/3 to 27% in 2010/11. This is encouraging as it is traditionally men who tend to have the worst problem when it comes to drinking in excess. The amount of adult drinkers who binge drink has fallen 8% to 30% in the years between 2005 and 2011. Also, the proportion of young people aged 11-16 who reported getting drunk in 2003 has fallen from 33% to 23% in 2011. It is important to look at these promising statistics as well as the ones that are not maybe as good.”
When asked if he thought the government were doing enough to tackle the problem of alcoholism, Mr Phipps responded, “In January 2012 the Health Minister (Edwin Poots) launched our revised strategy to prevent and address the harm related to alcohol and drug misuse in Northern Ireland, known as the New Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs (NSD) Phase 2. The Minister is committed to ensuring that the NSD Phase 2 is implemented as fully and effectively as possible, as approximately £8 million is allocated to its implementation each year and additional funding of around £6.5 million is provided through the mental health budget for the provision of treatment and support services.”
He continued, “The NSD seeks to direct action across five pillars: prevention and early intervention; harm reduction; treatment and support; law and criminal justice; and monitoring, evaluation and research. However, despite progress to date, including the establishment of treatment and support services across Northern Ireland, the development of a youth counselling service, and the availability of education and information programmes, which provide information for parents and young people, are being taken forward in schools, clubs and across local communities, we are keen to do more across Government – and there is a clear commitment from the executive to address this issue.”
“It’s never too early or too late to seek help”
The majority of clients at Addiction NI successfully complete programmes. However, this does not necessarily mean that the problem has been overcome, as Dr. Armstrong explains. “Around a third of people will only have a problem once in their lives and they will not have that problem again, about a third will have a recurring problem which will subside and then come around again, and about a third will have a chronic problem. So, about two thirds of our clients make significant progress with their alcohol or drug problem.”
When asked what she would say to someone who may have a problem but hasn’t yet sought help, Dr. Armstrong replied, “I think the idea is it’s never too early or too late to seek help. We see people here and they’re maybe drinking half a bottle of wine a night and they maybe used to drink a couple of drinks at the weekend. If someone wants to make a change, they can make a change. I’d certainly encourage anyone who is concerned about their drinking to seek help and contact Addiction NI or another organisation.”
Recovering alcoholic John added, “It cannot be defeated by willpower alone. I strongly urge anyone who thinks they may have a problem, or know of someone who does, to talk about it with someone. It is the first step that seems the biggest but it is one that they won’t regret taking.”