'All my friends are dead': The heartache drugs are causing in the North East

The scale of this problem is enormous - and highlights another north-south divide, as Sarah Corker reports

Sue Gill runs a café for the homeless in Middlesbrough, providing hundreds of hot meals every week to people struggling with drink and drug problems.

On one side of the café is a memorial wall - the names and faces of those who have died since 2019. Young, and mainly men, all of them with drug problems.

"We’ve lost eight this year, and I’m organising most of the funerals. It’s hard, as I often have to ID people in the morgue because they have no family," Sue said.

Eight more photos are due to go up shortly, but so many have died, they’ve run out of wall space.

In Middlesbrough, you don’t have to look far to see the signs of addiction.

Gresham is a short walk from the town centre with row after row of run-down terraced houses, the streets are punctuated with people clearly struggling with drink and drug problems. This is one of the most deprived places in Britain.

For the ninth consecutive year, the North East has the highest rate of drug-related deaths of anywhere in England and Wales, with 255 deaths registered in 2021, equivalent to 104.1 per million people.

Sue Gill has already buried four men lost to drugs in Middlesbrough this year. She says there is not enough support for those struggling with addiction

"I think it’s going to get worse, if we don’t get the help we need to get them off the drugs. I am fighting for it. I believe 34 people are sleeping rough right now. There’s not enough housing for them. They’ve all got backgrounds of abuse, being in care homes, mental health issues, they do need a lot of counselling, and the help isn’t out there," Sue said.

Sue, 64, told me that cuts to services have had a big impact - fewer youth clubs, less support for troubled families, not enough early intervention – means too many lives have spiralled out of control. The café is run by volunteers and relies on lottery funding and donations.

Ageing addicts

New trends involving taking specific drugs, such as benzodiazepines, alongside heroin and morphine may increase the risk of overdose, according to the ONS.

Analysis suggests that an ageing cohort of drug users are experiencing the effects of long term use and as a result becoming more susceptible to a fatal overdose. Those born in the 1970s, 'Generation X', have had higher rates of drug misuse death over time.

Dale is nearly 50 and has been using class A drugs since he was in his late twenties. All his closest friends are dead. He is the "only one left" and has "lost count of the number of funerals" he’s been to.

"For years, I didn’t know how to say no to drink and drugs. It was a way of dealing with past trauma.

"I was living in a tent before it got set on fire, then on the streets. I was a heroin addict and also took sleeping tablets. I was nearly dead. It was a chaotic life," Dale said.

For the last eight months he’s been on the heroin substitute methadone and feels he has turned a corner. He credits Sue, and the team at the homeless café for saving his life, showing him care, and helping him to find another way.

"But now, I’ve got a home, I’m trying to move forward and keep away from the bad people on the streets. I’m in recovery and feel much better."

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North-South divide

There is a clear North-South divide in Wednesday's statistics. 

The death rate in the North East is three times that of London. While the highest rate of drug misuse deaths was observed in the North East in 2021, (104.1 deaths per million, 255 registered deaths) the lowest rate was in the East of England (27.4 deaths per million,166 deaths).

North of England drug poisoning rates 2019 - 2021:

  • Blackpool 29.8

  • Middlesbrough - 28.8

  • Hartlepool - 26.4

  • Carlisle - 23.2

  • Hull - 21.2

  • Barrow - 20.8

What’s being done to address these problems?

Ask anyone on Teesside why there are so many drug deaths and the answer is the same – poverty. As traditional industries have declined, jobs have disappeared, the economy has stagnated and social inequalities have widened.

Tackling this problem requires mental health support, safe housing, availability of jobs, and addressing the inequalities that create the circumstances that can lead to addiction and despair.

Support groups have warned that until drug addiction is treated as an illness and health condition little will change. 

The stigma that’s attached to drug use means people often don’t come forward and ask for help. Experts also warn that the system is disconnected – addiction services are not joined up with mental health services.

Middlesbrough was one of the first five areas in the country targeted by Project ADDER (Addiction, Diversion, Disruption, Enforcement and Recovery), set up to tackle drug use and launched by the government in January 2021.

Peter Da Silva is one of those outreach workers. He shares his own experiences of addiction and how he overcame it to help others.

After his mother died when he was 11, he says he "went off the rails." It would be another 20 years before he got the help he needed.

'The only time I changed is when I met another person like me,' says drugs outreach worker Peter Da Silva

"I know many people who haven't made it, who've passed away, hundreds of people in this town," he said.

He described Middlesbrough as "social deprivation as its best."

"People are struggling here, and the best way to avoid that struggle, to escape that reality, for some people is alcohol and drugs," Peter added.

He says people who are struggling with drug addiction need help from others with lived experience, who understand what they are going through.

"The only time I changed is when I met another person like me, who was clean and told me how to do it," he said.

Trust in the police here is low. Cleveland Police was rated as inadequate in all areas in 2019 and has been in special measures ever since.

The wardens know most of the rough sleepers in Middlesbrough and use their own lived experiences with substance use to engage with some of the most vulnerable people who use drugs in the area.

They carry with them naloxone, a life-saving treatment which temporarily reverses the effects of an opiate-related drugs overdose.

They’ve handed out hundreds of kits, as well as clean needles and foil. This work is making a difference, but the scale of the problem is huge.

Who to contact if you or someone you know needs help

  • Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year, by calling 116 123.

  • Mind also offer mental health support between 9am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. You can call them on 0300 123 3393 or text them on 86463. There is also lots of information available on their website.

  • The NHS offers advice on how to get help for drug addiction.