Belfast Telegraph

Billy Cathcart's alcoholism left him with dementia, devastated sister reveals

By Lisa Smyth

The sister of an alcoholic has revealed the crushing effects of an addiction that have left him with dementia, as new figures reveal the extent of the problem in Northern Ireland.

Billy Cathcart, an ex-soldier and former auxiliary nurse, is only 57 but his mind has been ravaged by Korsakoff syndrome and he needs round-the-clock care.

The father-of-one from Antrim is unable to walk, cannot feed or wash himself and displays disinhibited behaviour that makes it almost impossible for his family to take him out in public.

His sister, Tracy Bell, has spoken out in a bid to educate others about the dangers of drink as official statistics reveal Northern Ireland is in the clutches of a deadly drink addiction.

According to the Office for National Statistics, Northern Ireland has had the biggest proportionate increase in the number of alcohol-related deaths in the UK in recent years. There was a 40% increase in alcohol-related deaths here between 2001 and 2017.

Only Scotland had more deaths attributed to drink, although efforts to tackle the problem there are paying off, with a 21% reduction between 2001 and 2017.

Ms Bell, a drug support worker from Antrim and her brother's main carer, said: "Someone has to be with Billy 24 hours a day.

"He isn't able to take care of his personal hygiene or cook food, he needs everything done for him because of his dementia.

"He needs surgery on his shoulder because it keeps dislocating but it can't be done because he doesn't have the cognitive ability to keep it in a sling to let it heal.

"He doesn't know that he's hungry and he believes he isn't able to walk because he broke his neck and back. In fact he gets really angry if you suggest that he drank alcohol because he was so against drinking."

Mr Cathcart was diagnosed with Korsakoff syndrome, a form of alcohol-related brain damage, in 2003 - five years after the death of his younger brother from a heroin overdose.

Ms Bell said the trauma of losing his brother in such tragic circumstances drove Billy to drink.

"It was his way of blocking out the pain," she said.

The first the family knew of his addiction was when they received a phone call to tell them he had been sectioned after his wife found him hiding in the house, claiming the IRA were coming to shoot him. His marriage subsequently broke down and he spent time at Holywell Hospital before he was finally discharged into his family's care.

Ms Bell said: "It's absolutely devastating and I want people to know the true horror of alcohol.

"Billy was absolutely devoted to his daughter but he was sectioned when she was only five years old. It's heartbreaking and I worry so much about him."

Ms Bell, who is working to open the first specialist addiction inpatient facility in Northern Ireland and is the founder of addiction charity GUS Health & Wellbeing, said more support is required to help addicts.

Her recent application to transform a site in Antrim into a health and wellbeing centre that also provides support to ex-servicemen suffering from addiction was turned down in favour of a property developer.

Addiction NI's Alex Bunting called for urgent implementation of a new alcohol and drug addiction strategy here, while west Belfast GP Dr Michael McKenna called for minimum unit pricing.

"There isn't a day goes by that I don't deal with someone who has an alcohol-related issue of some sort," Dr McKenna said.

"The problem is that addiction services have been somewhat of a Cinderella service in terms of funding and this is something that has to change."

Dr Paul Darragh from the British Medical Association described the figures as "shocking".

He said: "Figures show 12,000 people are admitted to hospital here every year with alcohol-related issues. The cost to the health service in Northern Ireland is £250m a year."

Dr Darragh said minimum unit pricing, increasing duty on alcohol, limiting advertising, better education and mandatory labelling on alcohol products will all help to address the issue.

He also said that people must take more responsibility for their own health and monitor their alcohol intake.

"There is a perception that you have to be an alcoholic to have health problems from alcohol. You don't, you just have to be drinking heavily," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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