'People are dying and not getting the help they need’: Inside the alcohol and drug addiction clinic battling cuts

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

Natasha’s broad smile and infectious good humour lights up a stale therapy room as she prepares to speak publicly for the first time about her long and traumatic journey.

After a brief reassuring glance to the psychologist she credits with saving her life, Natasha begins.

"I was just killing myself drinking," she tells ITV News. "I started drinking three bottles of vodka a day, just to get through.

"I knew I was killing myself but I would have rather been dead than dealing with what was going on."

Natasha received help at the Beresford Project in south-east London. Credit: ITV News

She shared her story as a major new international survey, the Global Drug Survey, found drunkenness is a greater problem among British people than any other leading developed nation.

While there is an overall downward trend of drinking levels in the UK - driven largely by abstention among young adults - those who do drink regularly in Britain are doing so excessively and in a potentially harmful way.

The damning statistics

The survey found Britons were drunk on average more than 50 times per year. Credit: ITV News/Global Drug Survey
Fewer Britons regretted heavy sessions compared to the rest of the world. Credit: ITV News/Global Drug Survey
A very small minority were forced to seek help for their drinking. Credit: ITV News/Global Drug Survey

Natasha's descent into alcoholism came as she experienced severe post-traumatic stress disorder after accusing someone of rape. The subsequent trial found the defendant not guilty, sending her life spiralling out of control.

"I couldn’t cope with what happened; I couldn’t cope with the constant thinking about what happened; the effects of what happened. The only thing to do was to look for something to make it easier and stop your thinking - my thinking was killing me. I was reliving it constantly."

As she continued to "beg for help", a decision by a clinician at a local hospital to take her to the Beresford Project in south-east London would prove lifesaving.

"I was a mess - I wouldn’t even recognise myself now to where I was."

Nearly five years on, Natasha’s situation and that of the clinic that turned her life around are now strikingly different.

Emily Morgan meets Natasha and her consultant clinical psychologist, Dr Tim Meynen. Credit: ITV News

Natasha is sober and a show of strength as she speaks about volunteering to help others battling addiction; the Beresford Project is struggling to provide the same level of treatment offered to those who have followed Natasha through the doors, in the face of debilitating funding cuts.

Addiction services, according to the country’s most senior addiction specialists, are in crisis, with financially stretched councils slashing budgets and with it access to treatment.

Alcohol and drug services have suffered a 17% real terms cut in funding since 2013/14, new analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists reveals, with financial support for drug treatment alone falling by 26% over the same period.

This coincides with the transfer of responsibility for funding drug and alcohol treatment services from the NHS to local authorities - already under intense pressure to make savings.

Funding drug and alcohol treatment services has switched from the NHS to local authorities. Credit: PA

Hospital admissions and deaths linked to substance misuse have soared over the same period.

“People are already dying,” Professor Julia Sinclair, the head of addiction for the college, says.

“Drug-related deaths have gone up by 28% in the last four years, we’ve had almost 6,000 alcohol-related deaths and we’ve had 1.2 million alcohol-related admissions.

“So people are sick and people are dying and they are not getting the help they need.”

She is scathing of what she describes as the “broken” funding model and resulting cuts and loss of expertise within the service, citing the example of her own clinic in Southampton where she says she is the only specialist consultant.

Professor Julia Sinclair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists is scathing over funding for addiction. Credit: ITV News

"If this was another health condition, it would be seen as a national scandal. If this was diabetes, if this was asthma services, if this was cancer, people would say: how can we expect people to go to a service where there are no qualified people to deal with them?"

That loss of expertise and resource is being severely felt at the Beresford Project where clinicians openly speak of their anxiety about their ongoing ability to offer the best to those in need.

"This man needs to be looked after - he needs to be in residential care as an inpatient in a psychiatric service and that’s quite a challenge to find someone a bed these days," Dr Francis Keaney, the lead consultant, says during a case review meeting.

Dr Keaney admits he and his colleagues are being forced to "take more clinical risks" amid depleting options for treatment, mentioning the specific loss of specialist in-patient units.

"We could detoxify patients in the past quite safely and we had various types of criteria for doing that but now we have to bend the rules a bit and take more risks with patients who have a lot of physical health issues that we wouldn't have traditionally done. A lot of colleagues are doing that already and that's not satisfactory."

Sitting listening to Natasha, Dr Tim Meynen, consultant clinical psychologist, expresses frustration that he and his colleagues feel hampered in their efforts to save more people, especially those with complex mental and physical needs living with the legacy of a trauma.

Dr Tim Meynen said he and his colleagues feel hampered in their efforts to save more people. Credit: ITV News

"There are many, many people out there who unfortunately have untreated mental illness who are self-medicating with substances who don't have access to services, don't know where they are or doors are shut on them.”

Natasha is adamant that she now wants to ensure more doors are open for people, to avoid becoming one of the lucky few to find and benefit from a service like this.

"I’m trying to give back now because I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through: trying to get help and it wasn’t there," she says.

Natasha now works to help others struggling with addiction. Credit: ITV News

"If it didn’t come at that time, I would have been dead so I was one of the lucky ones.

"I want other people to have that chance to get their life back."

A spokesperson for the Department for Health and Social Care said: “Thanks to robust public health measures, drug use in this country is lower now than it was a decade ago, with more adults leaving treatment successfully and waiting times remaining low at two days - while alcohol consumption has also fallen overall.

“There is always more to be done, which is why our Long Term Plan for the NHS has prevention at its heart, backed by a funding settlement of an extra £33.9 billion in cash terms every year by 2023/24.“