Yesterday I was honoured to speak at ‘Creating Recovery’, a conference organised by the indefatigable Russell Brand and the remarkable Noreen Oliver OBE. Perhaps only in the world of recovering addicts could such an eclectic mix of people come together, united by a common cause.
As well as two speeches from Russell Brand – who was launching the next phase of his Comic Relief fund ‘Give it Up’ on whose steering group I sit – the line-up includedChip Somers (one of the great addiction recovery leaders), Kevin Kennedy (aka Curly Watts from Coronation Street), Iain Duncan Smith and Camila Batmanghelidjh . But some of the most powerful speeches came from the relatively unknown – a former addict with years of prison and dealing behind him being a particularly brilliant example of what rehab can achieve.
The audience was packed with rehabilitation leaders, commissioners and journalists. The BBC’s Mark Easton listened intently and TV cameras rolled throughout. Comic Relief certainly knows how to gather the people who matter.
In my speech I wanted to make the link between rehabilitation and social justice. I argued that for as long as abstinence-based treatment remains the preserve of the rich or the chosen few, we shouldn’t rest.
I also offered some reflections about some of the progress made under the current Government – which is clearly pushing abstinence more passionately than the last – and presented two challenges we need to confront in relation to improving outcomes for those with addiction problems. These are the ageing nature of those in treatment and the increasingly damaging levels of alcoholism across the country.
Some excerpts from my speech are below:
“If the term social justice means anything to those who call on it, then surely it has to mean that the poorest or most vulnerable should have the same opportunities as those who have wealth. Yet, as we know, for too long the debate about full recovery has overlooked social justice.
Something that should really be quite simple and non-controversial has become divisive and ideological, swinging between extremes and theoretical arguments. We’ve attacked and undermined each other, and in the process, we’ve let the most important people down…
…So at the heart of today, really, should be something we can all agree on – whether we’re from the Left or the Right, whether we believe in legalisation or tough criminal sanctions, whether we think it’s a disease or a decision – and that is this: people should be given the choice. The choice to get clean and stay clean”
And in relation to ageing addicts and alcoholism I said this:
“One-third of people currently in the drug treatment system are aged 40 or over. And one-third of people have been on a continuous substitute prescription for 4 years or more.
Given that the average age of someone in the English treatment system is 35, we need to work out what recovery means as people get older. Many are kept alive by valid harm reduction measures, but remain trapped in addiction.
Many are unemployed and commit crime. Worst of all they’re lost to their families and friends. This group, ranging from their mid-30s upwards, is in danger of being forgotten. Or worse, written off.
At the Centre for Social Justice we’ve been told by officials, and even some treatment providers, that the ‘heroin-using population is ageing, and that, in effect, the best thing we can hope for is a ‘managed decline’.’
‘Their health needs are too severe’, they say, ‘their using too entrenched’ and so, the thinking goes, we should make them as comfortable as possible.
In other words keep them quiet, out of sight perhaps in shooting galleries, somewhere where the rest of society doesn’t have to see this unpleasant reality.
Until, that is, with terrible inevitability, they succumb to an early death…
… And a much larger group of people – 1.6 million in England – are trapped by alcohol.
Alcohol-related deaths have doubled since 1991 and liver disease is now one of the ‘Big Five Killers’…and it’s the only one on the increase. Serious drinking is up; alcohol-related admissions to hospital have doubled in a decade and continue to go up.
In terms of treatment, increasing readmissions to hospital show that it isn’t working. Although many receive excellent treatment for symptoms, like liver damage or injuries, the underlying causal condition – alcoholism or dependence – is rarely detected, let alone treated.
Despite its prevalence, more drug addicts receive help than alcohol dependants. As well as the paucity of treatment, too often it’s unambitious. As a specialist told the CSJ recently, they often see people with cirrhosis entered into controlled drinking programmes. Again, surely we can do better than that.”