The drug-related deaths recorded in 2021 have increased by 6.2% since 2020, making this the highest number since comparable records began in 1993, and the ninth year in a row that these figures have increased.
The ONS published its annual report on drug poisoning in England and Wales on the 3rd of August 2022, which revealed that there were 4,859 drug-related deaths in 2021 (84.4 per million people), a 6.5% rise from the 2020 figures. Of these deaths, 63% (3,060) were due to drug misuse; a statistic that increases to 84.1% when ONS excluded deaths where no information was available on the drug(s) that contributed.
As in the previous nine years, the North-East displayed the highest rate of drug-related deaths compared to the other regions in England and Wales, registering 104.1 deaths per million. The East of England had the lowest rate at 27.4 deaths per million.
The ONS report also showed that, as in previous years, men were disproportionately affected by drug-related deaths, with 115.1 deaths per million in men compared to 54.1 per million in women. 'Generation X' (45-49-year-olds) continued to experience the highest rate of drug-related deaths, followed by 40-44-year-olds.
Just under half of the drug-related deaths recorded in 2021 involved opiates (45.7%) which is a slight decrease from last year's figures, which showed that 49.6% of all drug-related deaths were caused by opiates. 2021 also saw an 8.1% increase in deaths involving cocaine (840), a number that is over seven times the figure recorded in 2011.
Whilst the 10-year drug strategy signifies a turning point for the drug treatment system, committing £533 million over the next three years to improve community treatment and recovery, these shocking statistics demonstrate just how urgently this investment was and still is needed. Last year, Dame Carol Black presented a vision for transforming the treatment and recovery system in her phase 2 report, and work has started across the sector and within NHS services to implement these recommendations in order to reverse the ever-increasing trend of drug-related deaths.
Kate Hall, Head of Operations at Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (GMMH), one of our NHS APA members, said: “The continued increase in deaths, almost half of which involved opiates and a significant rise in cocaine deaths compared to a decade ago, endorse the urgent need to invest in treatment services.”
"The continued increase in deaths, almost half of which involved opiates and a significant rise in cocaine deaths compared to a decade ago, endorse the urgent need to invest in treatment services."
In May, representatives from the NHS APA united senior leaders from the third sector and NHS treatment providers at a historic summit. Here, as an alliance of Trusts working in the addictions sector, we used our shared knowledge and expertise to commit to curbing drug deaths in England. This brought us together as a sector to recognise what is working and where we could improve our efforts. It was and continues to be our promise to people in need of treatment, their families, our staff and each other that we can, and will, do better, to prevent further needless deaths.
The record high number of drug-related deaths can be partially attributed to stigma, both in society and in services which still plagues our health systems. Stigma results in people not feeling able to seek the treatment that they so desperately need to get better. It also prevents society from responding effectively to the needs of those who experience addiction, manifesting in policy and practice. Last year's NHS APA conference focused on the impact of stigma on people who experience addiction, and in November this year, we will discuss strategies for tackling stigma in action, to prevent this death toll from rising year on year. You can register your place at the free 2022 conference here.
Kate also highlighted, “We know that most people struggling with addiction report experiencing early trauma and have associated mental health issues. They experience serious physical health problems and have difficulty accessing the preventative health care which is provided to others. The NHS Addiction Provider Alliance ‘Stigma Kills’ campaign is sadly reflected in these latest figures. We need to look beyond the addiction, see the person, hear their story, and break down the barriers to accessing help and support. This means challenging systems and services to work collaboratively to meet individual’s needs.”
"We need to look beyond the addiction, see the person, hear their story, and break down the barriers to accessing help and support. This means challenging systems and services to work collaboratively to meet individual’s needs."
The NHS APA extends their heartfelt sympathy and condolences to all those affected by drug-related deaths in 2021 and previous years and is committed to ending the widespread stigma against people with addiction. You can learn more about our national #StigmaKills campaign here. We are committed to working in partnership with other organisations across the addiction sector in a continued effort to save lives and reverse the increase in deaths and believe that we can achieve this by taking a whole-systems approach to treatment and recovery.