Drug-related mental health problems in older people soar in UK

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Growing numbers of middle-aged and older people are ending up in hospital suffering serious mental health problems after taking drugs, The Guardian report new National Health Service (NHS) statistics reveal. The number of people in England aged 45 and above admitted with a drug-related mental and behavioural disorder has soared 85% over the last decade. They have been treated after displaying symptoms such as hallucinations, confusion, extreme agitation and disinhibition.

Similarly, there has also been an increase of 32% in admissions for poisoning as a result of drug misuse in those aged 55 and above over the last six years.

The report says the figures from NHS Digital have prompted experts to claim that controversial changes in the government’s approach to drug addiction, and fewer specialist treatment services, have led to the rise in admissions. “It is clear from this data that older people are suffering the consequences of cuts made to drug treatment services over recent years,” said Ian Hamilton, associate professor of addiction at the University of York.

“They are more likely to have had longer drug-using careers, so they will need longer in specialist drug treatment. However, unfortunately treatment services are being directed to offer abstinence-based services rather than maintaining this group on substitute drugs like methadone.”

The report says the coalition government formed after the 2010 election provoked criticism from drugs experts when it moved away from the long-established “harm reduction” approach to helping addicts and instead sought to increase the numbers of people dependent on heroin and crack giving up altogether. “We are now witnessing the consequences as this group of older users are developing problems which result in admission to hospital as a result of their drug use,” added Hamilton.

The dramatic increases are disclosed in NHS Digital’s latest bulletin on drug misuse. They are in stark contrast to far smaller increases in younger people. For example, admissions for mental and behavioural disorders rose by just 1% in those under 45, and hospitalisations for drug poisoning increased by only 6% in the under-55s.

Dr Tony Rao, a consultant psychiatrist specialising in addiction in older people, said NHS Digital’s findings should be “a wake-up call” on the dangers of using drugs. “Middle-aged and older people of the baby boomer generation are less likely than previous generations to reduce their illicit drug use as they get older. Greater social acceptance of recreational drug use in childhood has meant that middle-aged and older people of this generation find it more difficult to change their attitudes towards drug use and drug-related harm as they grow older,” said Rao, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The report says data published recently by Public Health England also showed big increases in recent years in over-50s receiving help with addiction problems. For example, the numbers in that age group who presented with a drug-related health condition more than trebled from 5,679 in 2005/06 to 19,529 in 2017/18 – a rise of 243%. Similarly, the number of them who then started residential drug treatment rose over the same period from 1,797 to 4,455 – an increase of 148%.

Lucy Schonegevel, head of health influencing at Rethink Mental Illness, said the NHS Digital data provided “yet another piece of evidence in an ever-growing list showing the pressure that NHS services are facing in treating people with mental ill health. In these situations we can only be blunt: the numbers are travelling in the wrong direction and time is running out to do the right thing.”

Hamilton called for greater availability of naloxone, an antidote which stops people who have taken a heroin overdose from dying, and the creation of “safe injection facilities” where users can inject drugs safely.

The Guardian report
NHS Digital data
Public Health England data

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