To treat or not to treat, that is the question

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

A recent paradigm shift within the drugs field has further complicated an already difficult and lively debate around what constitutes drug treatment and who should qualify for it. This movement has, weirdly, sprung from a combination of both grass-roots support groups and the Coalition’s austerity measures.

In years gone by (and still in some regions today), Community Drug Teams were primarily made up of mental health nurses who, from what I could see, had got fed up with shift work on acute wards (having to work nights with full-blown nut jobs) and decided that community work was probably a cushy number (9-5 weekdays and 44p a mile). On the whole, these services met very nicely the needs of the nurses – and the prescribing psychiatrists – who admittedly had to endure sitting in grubby rooms in run-down buildings (god forbid drug users be seen in health centres and mix with the public), escorting their patients to the toilet for weekly supervised drug tests in return for a methadone prescription. Services were there to treat, almost exclusively, heroin users; a social group who, at the time, were massively excluded and disempowered, and who were very much at the services’ mercy. The power dynamic was engrained and aggressively maintained – CDT consultation rooms were reminiscent of Dickensian orphanages, and for those of us new to the field and not (at that point) full of cynicism, it was uncomfortable to witness. The approach was not holistic, nor did it address the psychological or social needs of the individual, and only those prepared to dip their caps, express their subordinate gratitude, reduce their drug use as instructed, attend regular appointments, and grovel for several weeks, if not months, ever made it past the waiting list for a prescription.

For those who did make it as far as an appointment with the prescriber, the only treatment available was low-dose, short-term methadone. The standard treatment plan was: enter treatment, stop using all drugs immediately, then reduce methadone dosage rapidly until opiate-free. Unsurprisingly, this method was rarely successful, as not only did it leave service users in a state of opiate withdrawal from treatment start until several weeks after treatment end, it also failed to take into account the person’s reasons for starting to take heroin in the first place – so as the opioids reduced, past trauma resurfaced, mental health problems were unmasked and exacerbated, and the reality of life hit right between the eyes. And should Mr Druguser share his concerns with Mrs Nurse, possibly disclosing self-prescribed codeine or Valium use to manage the symptoms produced by fast detoxification from methadone, he ran the risk of being labelled ‘not ready for treatment’ and being plonked back onto the waiting list. People could sit on these for up to a year in some areas, and the nurses seemed to miss the fact that heroin – well, it’s quite moreish. Needless to say, what became known as ‘The Revolving Door of Treatment’ only helped anyone whose motivation was extremely high, support networks were excellent, and mental health was completely stable. Everyone else spent their time trying to get onto a script, only to be either kicked off mid-treatment, or detoxed so fast that relapse onto heroin to manage withdrawal symptoms from methadone became almost unavoidable.

Then people started dying. Or at least, the public started to notice people dying. Bodies were being dumped in wheelie bins and skips because the Police automatically attended overdoses with ambulances. Families of the dead started to campaign, drug services came under fire, and at the same time, the links between Class A drug use and acquisitive crime were being formally logged, making these problems not just for those at the bottom of the social strata, but for the whole community.

And so came the 10-Year Drug Strategy, the new Labour Government’s attempt to tackle the problem. Money came flooding in to fund new services, and the focus of treatment shifted from purely medical to consider social and psychological aspects, meaning that there were opportunities for non-medical staff within the field (sometimes even within the mystical and superior world of prescribing). Services even started to employ ex-service users who had furthered themselves in education and experience. The power dynamic between service provider and service user started to dissolve, drug users were listened to – and, in many cases, preferred and pampered, with complementary therapies, immediate access to specialist education provision, and vulnerability tags when applying for housing.

The philosophy became – treat everybody. The research providing the evidence-base told us that a heroin user is less likely to die in treatment than when not in treatment; lessons from the 80s told us that legal and public denial of injecting practices led to steep increases in HIV and hepatitis C infection as a result of needle-sharing; the costs of treating health problems associated with long-term IV use and policing drug-fuelled acquisitive crime became clearer; and so thresholds for access to treatment were reduced. Harm Reduction was the phrase of the era, and this was extended to the harm caused to communities as well as to drug users themselves. Year by year, the money kept on coming and, to be honest, drug users and drug workers alike became a bit spoilt.

And so we move into a recession and a right-wing government. New presentations into opiate treatment are few and far between because heroin is so passĂ©, and those with the will have made use of the plethora of services and reintegrated into mainstream society. The group that are left are not happy – no more free gym passes or massages, no more sick pay for providing sick notes stating ‘substance misuse issues’, but instead an expectation to attend medicals and Jobcentre courses.

At the same time, the Recovery Movement becomes popular. Now the phrase, ‘Recovery’, does not sit comfortably with me. It is a phrase that comes from the mental health domain and conjures in my mind images of the sick – all very 12-Step Model, where substance use is not a choice but a disease for which there is no cure, where the victim must struggle through and put faith in a ‘higher power’ to help them manage this terrible affliction. Dodgy. I personally find it disempowering, patronising and lacking in the notion of personal responsibility – it’s not a disease, it’s a lifestyle choice, you haven’t got cancer for christ’s sake – but I appreciate that it is a phrase that was chosen and adopted by a group of service users, and so who am I to criticise. If it works and people relate to it, that’s fine by me.

The Recovery Model also promotes working towards abstinence. Now abstinence became somewhat of a taboo phrase during the Harm Reduction Years, as the focus was on engagement and retainment in treatment, to reduce the damage drug use did to individuals’ health and the overall damage done to communities (admittedly for financial reasons, not the sympathetic reasons Tony might have had us believe). And so what the Coalition has done, somewhat cleverly it has to be said, it to take a service user-led movement which focuses on moving people away from substance use by moving them towards ‘recovery’, and twisted this into “You know that expensive drug treatment you’ve all been getting for years? Well, much like your benefits, you’re not going to be getting it for much longer. Get your head round it. Oh and – it’s for your own good you know”. Handy – and cheap.

Now I’m not one for enabling drug users to remain unquestioningly stationary – and anyone who has read my other posts will know that I am also sick to death of the ‘dependency culture’ that has developed in this country. But taking a group of people who have been socially vilified then pitied, who have been consistently encouraged to get in treatment, stay in treatment, and routinely drink the green nectar as their contribution to society for the last ten years – and then giving them six months to fully detox from methadone and get a job – that is just too much to ask and too great a challenge to the belief system of someone who thinks that going to the chemist every day is a vocation.

Some services, fearing decommissioning, have done exactly that – employed a ‘six months and you’re out’ policy. Others have decided that if someone drops out of treatment, that ‘probably means’ they don’t need treatment any more and so must be classed statistically as a ‘successful discharge’. This lack of any real health-focused philosophy within drug services is driven by the Government’s new system of Payment By Results – and the results they want are drug users out of treatment and into work (hence the targets around successful discharges). As well as the questionable morality of removing what has been sold for many years as a medical intervention (without a change in the research-base about its effectiveness, may I add), it chooses to turn a blind eye to the lack of skill, experience or motivation of most of the people left within this (pretty hopeless) group. Most importantly, it fails to acknowledge the level of psychological dependence on the medication that has enabled the opiate-dependent to function as normal human beings, given that methadone and buprenorphine (Subutex) both have long half-lives where heroin’s is very short, and so users take their medication once a day and then can go about their business (probably watching Jeremy Kyle, training their Staffies to fight, and seeing who picks up benzodiazepines at the chemist today if I’m honest – but many also work, parent successfully, and lead more stable lives than I). The fear of opiate withdrawals is significantly worse and longer-lasting than the physical withdrawals themselves, and politicians encouraging, promoting and feeding that dependency for TEN YEARS, then withdrawing it, is, in my mind, nothing short of abusive.

And where will it take us, I wonder, when in a few months’ time this group are poorer, more desperate and without the crutch that for so long has reduced their risk of dying? Is that a revolving door I see…?

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One comment on “To treat or not to treat, that is the question

  1. Al says:

    Alas, if only the heroin wasn’t so god damn moreish aye!! I mean i’m no expert, but that would clearly have made various peoples lives so much easier… Really enjoying this blog, a fascinating insight.

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