Northern Ireland addicts with huge drug debts are taking their own lives rather than face angry dealers, claims front line worker
Northern Ireland is facing a deadly heroin and crack cocaine epidemic that is claiming lives, it has been warned.
An addiction support worker has said drug addicts, who have run up thousands of pounds in debt, are killing themselves rather than face the wrath of dealers.
Tracy Bell, whose brother Gary Cathcart was the first registered heroin death here 20 years ago, said it was now commonplace for dealers to rape drug users who owe them money.
Ms Bell, who primarily works with users living in Belfast and Antrim and is launching a charity aimed at helping addicts and people with mental ill health, also said people are having to leave the province to access lifesaving addiction services.
"I have a young fella today and I'm waiting to hear if there is an inpatient bed for him in Wales because there isn't anything in Northern Ireland or in Dublin," she explained.
"I have three young people in the Shankill waiting for inpatient beds but there just aren't any.
"The fact is, there's a crack and heroin epidemic going on, it's a crisis and people are dying, it's as simple as that."
She added: "I personally have 68 families in Antrim alone that I am helping for various drug addictions, from prescription drugs right up to crack cocaine.
"There was a teenager from Antrim who killed himself the other week over debts to a drug dealer.
"I regularly work with guys who have been raped by dealers over their debts.
"Kids are going to buy a £20 bag of drugs and the dealers are having sex with them at the same time.
"Every addict has run up a debt of about £1,500 to £2,000 and one has even run up a debt of £19,500.
"I'm working with countless 14-year-olds who are addicts - I have one young boy who is injecting himself 10 times a day."
Ms Bell said that the worst part was that "services for addicts just aren't good enough".
"You have heroin addicts waiting seven months just to get on a methadone programme," she pointed out.
"People don't become addicts for no reason, very often they have suffered some kind of trauma themselves, and we're not giving them the right kind of support.
"We have so many counsellors, but without the proper support we are just opening up a can of worms by sending addicts to counsellors without all the other services that need to run alongside."
Ms Bell - who is preparing to launch her GUS Health & Wellbeing charity in the coming weeks - has become so horrified by the situation that she posted a video on social media in which she called for the community to come together to help address addiction.
In it she warned that teenagers in Antrim believed they were not at risk if they smoked heroin instead of injecting it.
"People think heroin is dirty, but crack is just as bad, and even cannabis is dangerous because the dealers are mixing it with the likes of crack," she said.
She urged parents to be aware of the warning signs that their children may be taking drugs. However, she added: "We can't blame the families, a lot of addicts come from very good families who work hard.
"I was with a lady the other night whose son is an addict and he was caught in possession of some drugs recently and fined £200 by the courts.
"This lady made me a cup of tea and apologised that she didn't have any biscuits to give me because she didn't get paid until the next day, yet she is paying her son's court fine simply to keep him out of prison because it is so easy for him to get drugs in there.
"She's a lovely woman, she works hard and she is taking £50 from her wages a month to pay the fine.
"She's all on her own and it's horrendous.
"Families are going to their GPs asking for help for loved ones to be told there is a crack and heroin epidemic and they don't know what they can do.
"I've been warning for years that we are going down a slippery slope.
"But I think that when doctors are saying there is an epidemic, and there is nothing they can do to help, that we need action and we need it urgently."
A spokeswoman for the Health and Social Care Board said: "The pressures on addiction services are in part due to an increase in referrals to services and the current funding pressures within the wider health and social care system.
"This is not considered to be an acceptable position and we are working to address this situation."
For further information on services visit www.drugsandalcoholni.info