Drug deaths double in Northern Ireland in 10 years

Opioids like heroin are a common factor in drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland. Credit: PA

The number of drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland has more than doubled in the last 10 years, with deaths linked to opioids like heroin and morphine on the rise.

The latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency recorded 218 drug-related deaths in 2020 – up from 191 the year before and from 92 in 2010.

Of those 218 deaths, more than 70% (153) were males and more than half (55%) were men aged 25-44.

Two-thirds of all the deaths involved two or more drugs.

Some 133 cases in 2020 had an opioid mentioned on the death certificate, with heroin and morphine the most common and connected to 55 deaths - up from 46 in 2019 and the highest number on record.

Diazepam and pregabalin have also featured heavily. Diazepam was involved in over 23% of all drug-related deaths in 2020.

Pregabalin is a Class C prescription drug used to treat nerve pain, epilepsy and anxiety. Credit: UTV

Pregabalin – often sold under the brand name Lyrica – is used to treat conditions like epilepsy, anxiety and nerve pain.

However, its abuse has been widely documented and it first started appearing in statistics around drug-related deaths in Northern Ireland in 2013.

The number of deaths where pregabalin was a factor then rose from nine in 2016 to a peak of 77 in 2019, but has reduced slightly to 70 in 2020.

The number of drug-related deaths involving cocaine has remained relatively unchanged since 2019 (36 in 2020), but the proportion of cases where it is mentioned on the death certificate has actually decreased from a peak of 19.4% in 2019, to 16.5% in 2020.

The proportion of all drug-related deaths that also mentioned alcohol on the death certificate has also decreased - down to 14.7% in 2020, having more than halved the 2012 peak of 31.8%.

The statistics indicate higher numbers of drug-related deaths in areas of deprivation across Northern Ireland.

Those living in the most deprived areas are shown to be almost five times more likely to die from a drug-related death than those in the least deprived areas.