Posted on: 14 December, 2022
New figures have been released by the Office for National Statistics on alcohol-specific deaths for 2021, showing that 9,641 people tragically died last year – this is the highest figure on record, and an enormous 27.4% on 2019 – the last figure taken prior to the COVID–19 pandemic
Recent NHS-commissioned research from Sheffield University highlights how “lighter drinkers decreased their consumption on average during the pandemic, but heavy drinkers increased their alcohol intake.” This pattern likely reflects the psychological challenges presented by lockdowns and the pandemic, and highlights that the most vulnerable drinkers are at the highest risk of complications related to alcohol.
Evidence also shows that those from more deprived backgrounds are more likely to suffer greater consequences than those from affluent backgrounds, a tragic factor in relation to these shocking deaths.
The effects of the pandemic were challenging for treatment providers too, but Cranstoun adapted and delivered our services to ensure there was support for people who needed it. Most notably Cranstoun has been a partner in the multi-agency Sandwell Blue Light Project, which is an initiative to develop alternative approaches and care pathways for drinkers who are not in contact with treatment services, but who have complex needs.
Working from home, and the closure of pubs dictated that some alcohol use became less visible, less manageable, and reduced the ability of support networks to intervene to those who might be developing problematic patterns of consumption. People – especially those who would be deemed heavy drinkers – were more likely to be drinking alone, invisible to their support networks. Other factors of the pandemic may have compounded the issue for people who drink heavily, especially given the increase in reported mental health problems during this period.
In addition, during the pandemic it was very difficult to meet with a GP, and due to constraints on the NHS, this trend has continued. Less visits to the GP mean that health professionals are not getting opportunities for the screening of alcohol related conditions and are unable to efficiently act as another tool to engage people drinking heavily.
These circumstances have contributed to a tragic surge in alcohol-specific deaths, and Cranstoun fears that, if people who need support to reduce or halt their pandemic-increased alcohol intake are not getting the support they need, then this figure could continue to rise. This is particularly worrying given the pressure health and providers are already under in terms of funding and caseloads.
Without greater resource, most providers are simply not equipped for the uptake in referrals necessary to reduce alcohol related harms. Treatment providers also need to continue to adapt services to ensure we are reaching the people who need help. This is especially compounded by the cost of living crisis and sharp rises in inflation and the same financial constraints are being felt across health and social care.
The Cranstoun Arrest Referral Service (CARS) offers those entering police custody the opportunity to meet with and be assessed by a drug and alcohol worker whilst there. The scheme highlights the tangible link between alcohol and related crime or alcohol and acquisitive crime. People in custody can then be diverted towards treatment and other support as desired. This service demonstrates that there are solutions to engaging people whose alcohol consumption can lead to criminality, into treatment. However, clearly more needs to be done to support people to access support services other than when they encounter the police.
Aside from CARS, the quality of treatment delivered is paramount to reducing harm, and consequently alcohol related deaths. Leading schemes which are holistic and encompassing of surrounding factors – like trauma and mental health difficulties – are crucial to effectively engage people who need it into treatment and support. This is essential with adverse mental health consequences from the cost of living crisis also potentially compounding many people to turn to alcohol.
The fact that mental health services are similarly oversubscribed and short of funding at present is particularly worrying – mental health support should be entwined with alcohol treatment where necessary, given the inextricable link between mental health, trauma and excessive alcohol consumption. Additional funding is needed to cope with anticipated future demand for mental health support and slow the rate of alcohol-specific death. Taking action now will also reduce costs related to high alcohol use such as: alcohol-related health costs, costs resulting from alcohol-related crime, including incidences of domestic abuse
In short, the government must act now to address this sharp, tragic increase in alcohol related deaths to avert further suffering and preventable loss of life. 2021’s figures lay bare the scope the crisis, and the desperate need for action.
Meg Jones, Director at Cranstoun said: “We must always remember that these figures are people – someone’s parent, child, sibling, friend. This demonstrates the enormous impact of the pandemic and the surrounding psychological factors surrounding it on people who use alcohol, particularly those using alcohol heavily and regularly. Our thoughts are with those who have lost someone to an alcohol-related death in 2021.
“With the cost-of-living crisis already wreaking havoc, government support in the form of funding to treatment providers is essential to reverse this enormously worrying trend. In addition to ensuring that the right funding is in place to ensure local services can begin to turn the tide on these worrying trends, we urge the government to consider greater funding for schemes, such as the Sandwell Blue Light Project, to ensure that we are engaging higher numbers of people who need help – estimates state that around four-fifths are not getting the support that the need.
“We urge a wider roll out of the Cranstoun Arrest Referral Service, to support those with who are coming into contact with the criminal justice system because of their alcohol use into getting the help they need.
“Failure to address this issue will result in more tragic loss of life and greater pressure on public services already facing crises.”