Ministers must face up to the addiction crisis and its devastating consequences
The huge increase in alcohol related deaths is one of the worst consequences of the Covid-related mental health emergency. Without action, many more could pay a tragic price.
It’s mental health awareness week 2021, after a year in which lockdowns, isolation, and uncertainty have hit everyone hard. For people who already struggled with their mental health, this year has been particularly awful – as the latest figures on alcohol related deaths in England and Wales show.
It is incredibly painful to see just how badly this year has affected those in the terrible grip of substance abuse and addiction.
There were 7,423 deaths from alcohol-specific causes in 2020, 19.6% more than in 2019 and the highest number since records began in 2001. The Office of National Statistics, who released these figures last week, say those who sadly died likely had a previous history of alcohol misuse or dependency.
Each and every death included in these figures is a tragedy.
Funding must go to the addiction support services that are a lifeline for so many
Not only is addiction a serious public health issue, it’s also a deeply personal one. I’ve spoken before about my dad’s experience of alcoholism, and of the awful impact alcohol abuse can have on individuals and their children and families.
And while I’ve supported lockdown measures to suppress the virus over the past year, I have warned repeatedly about the impact of restrictions on people’s wellbeing.
But the crisis in addiction services existed long before Covid. In the ten years to 2020, huge cuts to specialist health budgets saw treatment services for addiction scaled back. Too many people with addiction problems were failed.
Meanwhile, Tory austerity fuelled all the social conditions that breed drug and alcohol problems – poverty, homelessness, youth crime and alienation. There were tragic consequences, with alcohol-specific deaths increasing by an average of 2.1% per year.
But the 19.6% jump from 2019 to 2020 is appalling. And it is a deep social injustice that poorer areas in England saw many more alcohol-related deaths – these were 4.2 times higher for men in the poorest areas, and 3.2 times higher for women in the poorest areas.
This pattern of inequality is also found in figures out last week on adults suffering from depression. One in five adults experienced symptoms of depression in early 2021, more than double the rate before Covid. And people in the poorest areas had worse mental health, with 28% of adults in these communities experiencing symptoms of depression, compared with 17% in the wealthiest areas.
It was always obvious that the impact of repeated lockdowns on mental health would be disastrous, particularly for people in more disadvantaged areas. That’s one of the reasons Labour urged the government to get a grip of Covid as soon as possible in early 2020 – because we knew the harm that a year in and out of lockdowns might do.
More than a year on, the huge increase in alcohol related deaths is one of the worst consequences of the Covid-related mental health emergency. As the pandemic eases, the government must act to improve support for people struggling with their mental health. And given how deadly the addiction crisis can be, funding must go to the addiction support services that are a lifeline for so many.
The latest figures are black and white proof of the addiction crisis in this country. Without increased support, the most vulnerable in our society will be left without the help they so desperately need. Sadly, without action, many more could pay a tragic price.
Jonathan Ashworth is the Labour MP for Leicester South and shadow health and social care secretary.