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Revealed: Northern Ireland's shocking dependence on sedatives

By Sarah Rainey

The level of Northern Ireland’s shocking addiction to prescription drugs can be revealed today by the Belfast Telegraph.

Almost 1.5 million prescriptions for tranquillisers and sleeping pills are being issued to patients across the country each year, according to central pharmacy data.

Shock figures obtained from the Health and Social Care Board show that 1,482,220 scripts were given out in 2009 — almost the equivalent of one prescription for every man, woman and child in the province.

During the first nine months of 2010, a total of 1,139,783 prescriptions were issued throughout Ulster.

Even higher numbers of tranquillisers and sleeping pills were prescribed in 2008, totalling 1,448,652.

Health professionals have warned that GPs are handing the drugs out too readily, with devastating effects for users who quickly become dependent.

Doctors from the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust prescribed the most drugs, giving out nearly 1,120,000 scripts — around 400,000 a year — since January 2008.

With just 340,000 people in the Belfast and Castlereagh areas served by the trust, the annual figures work out at 1.2 prescriptions for every single person.

Darren Whiteside of the Forum on Action for Substance Abuse (FASA) in Belfast said young people were using the prescriptions as “currency” to buy other drugs. “A lot of the time they get their hands on the drugs through repeat prescriptions for tranquillisers and for other painkillers,” he said.

“It may be that family members get a prescription and give it to other family members.

“Some are going into their granny’s medical cabinet and getting the drugs.

“We see a lot of people dabbling in these drugs who have found themselves dependent.”

Figures for the Northern Health and Social Care Trust were the second highest in the province, with more than 950,000 drugs prescribed over the past three years.

In the Southern area, the total for the three-year period came to 774,539, with 636,931 prescriptions issued to patients in the Western trust region.

A spokeswoman for the central Health and Social Care Board admitted that the figures were high.

“Northern Ireland does have a higher usage of these drugs which has been attributed partly to the legacy of the Troubles,” she said.

She added that the board was working with GPs and the five regional trusts to reduce the number of prescriptions that are being given out.

But Seamus Ward, co-ordinator of the Foyle Tranquilliser Initiative, warned that urgent action is needed if the rising figures are to be reduced.

He said the use of tranquillisers and sleeping pills was ingrained among users of all ages, with older addicts passing them to friends at funerals and bingo events.

In some parts of Northern Ireland, prescriptions for the drugs are swapped as casually as cigarettes.

“A lot of it is because young people see parents taking it and it makes it socially acceptable,” Mr Ward said.

“There have been instances of blue and yellow tablets getting passed around at funerals like a cup of tea.

“Young people are taking diazepam or temazepam at weekends to get a buzz. This affects all ages.

“They think they’re just tablets so it doesn’t matter. If it was cocaine or any other sort of drug people would be up in arms, but they don’t realise.

“For some reason they have some kind of social acceptance, and that’s what worries me.”

Figures released in December last year showed that Ulster doctors prescribed twice as many sleeping tablets as their counterparts in England, Scotland or Wales.

The news comes after a study by mental health charity Threshold found that there were 75% more scripts for tranquillisers here than in the rest of the UK.

Doctors in Northern Ireland also have the second highest prescribing rate of anti-depressants in Europe.

Mr Whiteside said he understood that dealing with dependency was not an easy task for GPs, who have set up a number of regional initiatives to tackle the problem. But he said the practice of authorising repeat prescriptions on the telephone was a major concern.

“It’s something they should really take a look at, because they don’t know who’s on the end of that phone,” he said.

“If people have been on the drugs for a long time maybe their doctors could look at why and try and get them off. In one north Belfast community I worked in, I met a group of young people aged between 14 and 17 and every single one of them currently or had previously used diazepam.

“There’s an indeterminate number of people who are in this situation and who haven’t had any help because nobody knows there is a problem.”

Claire Armstrong, manager of Addiction NI, said there was a new generation of users in the province getting hooked on prescription drugs.

“It’s not just the older women who have been on prescriptions for the drugs for years, like it was in the 1970s,” she said.

“There is still a proportion of people on repeat prescriptions, but now we’re seeing a lot of younger people who are taking benzodiazepines and other tranquillisers as part of a drug-taking pattern.

“They’re getting them from drug dealers — where the dealers get them I don’t know.”

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