Last December, the UK government announced an unprecedented £780 million of additional funding for drug treatment and recovery over the next 3 years.
That was the good news.
The not-so-good part? Together with the public health grant, this represents just a 3% increase in such funding, versus 8 years ago [1,2].
This is simply not enough. Not when the rate of deaths from drug misuse increased by more than 30% over the same period .
Substance and alcohol abuse and addiction cause immense pain and suffering for individuals and our loved ones, something I personally understand.
The pandemic and addiction
The pandemic created more than one public health crisis. Lockdowns protected our physical selves, but left some of us struggling with our mental well-being. Being cut off from family, friends, co-workers and social support was tough enough. But beyond that, especially for the most vulnerable, the fear of job loss and other livelihood matters was, and remains, very real.
When we consider how intertwined mental illness and substance use disorders are, with half of those with mental illness also struggling with substance use , it’s not surprising to see the increased risk profiles of alcoholism and substance abuse since the pandemic started .
A prolonged sense of isolation, anxiety or depression can drive people to reach for the bottle or drugs – heroin, cocaine, even prescription drugs – if only to numb the pain or worry for a while.
Once the initial high subsides, alcohol and drugs can actually worsen the symptoms of mental disorders or even trigger new ones, creating a vicious cycle of dependency on such substances.
So while the £780 million is a commendable commitment from our government, addiction treatment services have suffered from serious underfunding for close to a decade. In terms of financial resourcing, we are merely standing still, while the human toll of addiction continues to deteriorate.
Addiction as a whole
Equally urgent is reshaping how we understand and look at addiction. We need to start looking at addiction as a whole in our society, and not just in terms of substance or alcohol.
For instance, gambling addiction is one of the fastest growing addictions in the UK, potentially affecting over 10% of men . Not only does it destroy families, relationships and careers, but it causes physical harm as well, accounting for a large proportion of male suicide attempts .
We know online gambling is now a big problem. In fact, it’s a third of the UK’s betting market .
Yet regulation of gambling messaging and advertising has been loose, to say the least. Children are still bombarded with gambling-related loot boxes in video games. Betting logos still front match-day kits in top-level sports like the Premier League. For those already experiencing problems with gambling, this sort of advertising can have a disproportionate effect.
Simply put, the review and reform of the gambling laws cannot come soon enough.
Another example is social media. It is now a part of our lives, but so are its addictive properties.
Many users, especially the young, continue to be exposed to its algorithmic manipulations on a daily basis. There is no doubt now that excessive use of social media causes harm. It lowers our self-esteem, damages our relationships, impairs our cognitive and social functions, and even leads to eating disorders and other forms of self-harm .
The causes and effects of social media addiction are just starting to enter the public discourse. And it is vital to keep such conversations going and push for stronger regulation and oversight of the industry, to prevent it from silently taking over even more of our lives.
Education and awareness against addiction
Education and awareness are key to preventing future generations from being damaged by the daily dopamine rush of addictive behaviours, not just those who need help now.
This is especially crucial for adolescents and young adults, who may not have the maturity and decision-making to process the implications of drug-taking and other compulsions.
But we must also realise it’s not enough to simply legislate for such education in our schools. Our children are now savvier than ever before, and our messaging has to move with the times.
We have known for a long time about the limitations of abstinence-based scare tactics against addiction. Whether it is for drugs, alcohol, gambling or gaming. These tactics are simply no match for how increasingly smart, informed and curious our kids are.
Rather, we have to feed our future generations with more holistic, truthful information about addiction, not just the bad effects of substances and behaviours.
If the government is already embracing such messaging for sex education in schools , there’s no reason why we cannot do the same for addiction.
More needs to be done
Reinstating the funding for drug treatment and recovery is just the start.
Beyond resourcing, what we need is a coherent strategy to prevent, treat and help people recover from addiction, and not just for substance and alcohol.
The health and well-being of our future generations is at stake.
About Paul: Paul Spanjar is an experienced substance abuse counsellor and CEO of the Providence Projects. He has been working in the field of addiction for over 15 years, appearing on ITV and the BBC talking about the growing issue of addiction.