Addiction charity calls for new strategy around prevention in wake of shock figures
Northern Ireland’s death toll due to alcohol in 2020 was the second highest in the UK, with 19.6 fatalities per 100,000 of the population.
The rate was higher than that of England and Wales, and only marginally lower than Scotland, which had 21.5 deaths per 100,000 last year.
The data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) noted while there was an 18.6% increase in alcohol-related deaths overall in the UK compared to 2019, the rise here was not significantly different, with the rate remaining consistently high.
Alex Bunting of Addiction NI said his organisation “could see quite clearly that Northern Ireland did have a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol, as did Scotland”.
The charity’s services were part of a UK-wide approach called Drink Wise, Age Well.
“A lot of people talk about alcohol, and then they talk about drugs separately, and they forget that alcohol is a very powerful drug,” said Mr Bunting.
He pointed out the official numbers only refer to direct medical deaths caused by alcohol, such as liver disease, of which the ONS said more than 75% of the fatalities were caused by.
“There’s a lot of other things that need to be taken into consideration — if you think about suicides, or other deaths caused by car accidents while someone is under the influence of alcohol,” he added.
“There’s a whole range of impact that that specific figure just doesn’t relate to.”
Figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) found that the rate of local alcohol-related deaths has increased by almost 50% over the last two decades.
Last week the Department of Health revealed more than 80% of adults here were consuming alcohol during 2020-21.
A direct cause of this was the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent mental health issues people had to deal with, Mr Bunting said.
He said research his charity looked at found around 300,000 people have suffered anxiety and depression over the course of the health crisis since it began in March 2020.
“With that comes coping mechanisms, which are often unhealthy and involve misuse,” he said.
“We have grossly underfunded our mental health resources, which our addiction services fall out of.
“The other aspect is that we have a history here whereby a lot of people turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism in terms of the Troubles.”
Last year Stormont’s Department of Health announced it was spending over £1bn annually dealing with drug and alcohol misuse — one-tenth of the annual block grant from Westminster.
“It’s huge. How much better could that resource be spent trying to address the other health concerns we have currently, with waiting lists,” Mr Bunting added.
He said many in the younger generation were very concentrated on their health and wellbeing, and were actually reducing their alcohol intake.
He said: “The area that we’re most concerned about is the over-50s and older adults, because that’s where we’re seeing an increase in intake, deterioration and also a link to physical and mental health conditions.
“Alcohol has been normalised across Northern Ireland… prevention is key.
“We should be investing in younger people, access to work and employability.
“The big driver in all of this is deprivation and health inequality.
“A wider strategy at actually looking at how to lift wider communities across Northern Ireland out of poverty, making them progressive places to live and giving them opportunity, is probably the one area we could focus on.
“In smaller terms, I think we should develop a prevention strategy specifically around alcohol.”
Figures from Nisra have further shown that alcohol-related deaths, including those linked to drink-driving or combined with chronic conditions, were five times more likely to occur in our most deprived areas.
Danny McQuillan is the CEO of Extern, a charity which also help individuals suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, among other services.
He said: “Dependence on alcohol can be both physical and psychological and unlike withdrawal symptoms with other substances, alcohol withdrawal can cause significant physical ill health and death on occasion.
“Extern’s approach is one of harm reduction rather than abstinence from the use of alcohol and attendance at appointment-based services. Many individuals feel shame and stigma, and do want to address their use, but are unable to manage total abstinence due to the symptoms of withdrawal and lack of assertive outreach support.
"What we mean by this is that the support is brought to the individual and managed at their pace with their involvement in a person-centred way. This approach is intensive and long term, but it can mitigate the instances of serious illness and lead to a reduction in the number of deaths.”
Across the UK last year there were nearly 9,000 deaths linked directly to alcohol.