Drug-related deaths have risen for the eighth year in a row according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and 2020 had the highest number of deaths since comparable records began in 1993.
In its annual report on drug poisoning in England and Wales published on 3rd August 2021, the ONS revealed that there were 4,561 deaths in 2020 (79.5 per million people), a 3.8% rise from the 2019 figures. Of these deaths, 2,996 were due to drug misuse.
The North of England continues to be disproportionately affected by drug-related deaths - the North East displayed a higher rate than any other region at 104.6 deaths in every million people, a trend that has continued for the past eight consecutive years, with London displaying the lowest rate at 33.1 per million.
These shocking statistics emphasise the urgency for the government to act on the recommendations set out in Dame Carol Black's landmark phase 2 report. Dame Carol Black urged the government to increase and ring-fence funding for treatment services over the next 5 years and to ensure that those with drug dependencies have fair access to services including mental and physical health support and high-quality personalised care. The report also advocates for system standards to be implemented, which serve as a benchmark for the resources used across localities, and their effectiveness at reducing these deaths across the UK population.
Jon Shorrock, Chair of the NHS Inpatient Network, said that the current statistics are a “harrowing reminder of the number of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, along with other relatives and friends that will have lost their loved ones and will be grieving their loss.
“The death of people who use alcohol and other drugs affects communities as well as families, and the impact is far-reaching, which can also perpetuate the cycle of drug use intergenerationally. Many of these deaths are avoidable either through better access to drug and alcohol treatment, to mainstream primary and secondary care, physical and mental health services, social care, and life opportunities in general and is underpinned by a lack of cohesive national strategy to reverse the trend.”
“Many of these deaths are avoidable either through better access to drug and alcohol treatment, to mainstream primary and secondary care, physical and mental health services, social care and life opportunities in general, and is underpinned by a lack of cohesive national strategy to reverse the trend.”
Jon also highlighted the role of stigma in drug-related deaths, saying that it “needs to be taken seriously and tackled through any national strategy.
“It is a depressingly familiar story which can hopefully be reversed by realising the recommendations from Dame Carol Black part 2 review in full. We must act now to undo the disinvestment and systemic failures, for it is clearly a stain on our nation.”
Dr Emily Finch, Vice-Chair of the NHS APA, also responded to the latest figures by saying that addiction services are currently "ill-equipped to treat people and prevent their deaths from rising".
She urged the government to; “wake up to the fact that cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths.”
Dr Finch echoed Dame Carol Black's recommendations for enabling fair access to treatment, saying that “people living with a drug addiction must have access to the mental health support they desperately need.”
“Cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths.”
Other findings from the ONS report showed that drug-related deaths were most prevalent in men (109.7 per million), and drug-misuse deaths were highest in those aged between 45-49, a trend consistent with last year's report. The number of drug-related deaths in women has also risen slightly, with 49.8 per million compared to 49.1 per million in 2019.
Additionally, 49.6% of all drug-related deaths were caused by opiates, with a further 9.7% increase in deaths caused by cocaine compared to last year's figures. This number has risen for the last 9 consecutive years.
Responding to today's report, Danny Hames, Chair of the NHS APA, said “Another year of ever-increasing deaths is tragic but regrettably not unexpected and is a continuation of what we have seen in terms of alcohol-related deaths.
“Of course this is a public health emergency, but I would go further and say this is a societal crisis compounded by poverty and disadvantage. A failure of investment and policy has created fertile ground in which these tragedies ever increase. The Dame Carol Black Review of Drugs sets a roadmap for investment and system change that can start to reverse this trend. This needs a firm ongoing government policy and financial commitment to support these recommendations alongside a radical shift in an integrated approach so that all organisations - Departments of State, Local Authorities, NHS England, Criminal Justice partners and treatment providers work in partnership to provide a response that reflects the requirements of those affected.”
Danny fears that if this does not happen, “more lives will be lost year on year and more records set – more tragedy.” He states that this is something that as a society “we should not tolerate any longer.”
“This is a societal crisis compounded by poverty and disadvantage. A failure of investment and policy has created fertile ground in which these tragedies ever increase.”
This year's record-high number of drug-related deaths could be partially attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic which started in March 2020 and had an understandably detrimental impact on the mental health of many across the country. This, combined with a lack of funding for vital treatment services that provide life-saving support to those who suffer from addiction, has led to an increase in drug-related deaths and a further call to arms for those involved in the treatment sector to tackle drug addiction as a public health crisis.