Lauren Windle shares her expertise with Sober Girl Society: Why funding cuts to alcohol services are cruel, a brief history of funding cuts to alcohol services and why it helps absolutely no one
YOU’RE probably here because you’re sober, sober curious or toying with the idea of one or the other. Reasons for this could include (but are not limited to): not enjoying the taste of alcohol, not enjoying the anxiety, stress or depression that you’ve found heightened after a session, or not being able to put the breaks on after a glass or two. For those in the latter category, at the top end of the spectrum are people who are desperately in need of intervention. For those who require intervention of the medical variety, the opportunities are looking increasingly grim.
Government spending on alcohol services – a brief history
NHS treatment for those struggling with their alcohol consumption falls under the “drug and alcohol services” in England. Prior to 2012, this was funded by both the NHS and local authorities, meaning it benefited from investment (and reasonably substantial investment) from central government. Under this system addiction services celebrated a successful track record since the 2000s.
Then came the Health and Social Care Act, where drug and alcohol services were now the sole responsibility of local authorities and, unlike before, the budget for them wasn’t protected. With less funding from government and local authorities struggling to cover the costs – these services were forced to make big cuts.
In 2018 services saw cuts of 30% in some areas with others planning on going as high as 50%. In Birmingham addiction treatment budget was cut from £26m to £19m in 2015-16. These funding cuts to alcohol services usually mean a decrease in specialist staff, in fact the number of training positions in addictions psychiatry has decreased by a whopping 60% since 2006.
The false economy
The reduction of specialists means further strain on general medical professionals, who don’t have the same expertise to handle alcohol use disorder. As a result, the treatment offered is not of the same standard. Without the dedicated departments, ready and able to greet and treat those that need, people are turning up at stretched A&E. Transferring the burden of care from the local authority’s budgets back on to the NHS – who famously have loads of capacity to take on a higher workload right?
There isn’t national uproar about these cuts for one simple reason: the stigma associated with alcohol use disorder. At the very heart of these budget cuts is an attitude that those who let alcohol get the better of them are weak. It’s their fault and they need to learn to control themselves. Self-inflicted problems shouldn’t be paid for by the taxpayer. It’s a regular debate; “don’t pay for that fatty’s gastric band, just tell them to put down the biscuits and get on the treadmill”, “don’t offer nicotine substitution treatment, that smoker should have turned down that first Mayfair behind the bike shed at the age of 14”, “why should we pay for booze-hounds who are too weak to stop themselves drinking themselves to death?”
This is an attitude that I believe wrong. The logic is fundamentally flawed and at its heart, it’s incredibly unlike and emotionally insensitive.
If the NHS stopped treating people suffering from conditions that are contributed to by their lifestyle choices, where do we draw the line? Any liver disease? Diabetes? What about cancers? Do we have to investigate to see if the cancer is the result of genetics or an excess of red meat before we sign off covering the cost? Would you like funding to be withdrawn if you found yourself facing cancer treatment?
Alcohol addiction: down to choice?
Here are the facts: it IS a person’s choice if they pick up the first drink they have. This is a decision that a huge majority of people in the UK make; to taste an alcoholic drink. Whether or not a person develops an addiction or unhealthy relationship with alcohol, can depend on genetics, circumstances and surrounding. In the vast majority of cases, it IS NOT their fault. It is not weakness. The false impression that attributes blame to those suffering causes alcohol support services to take a back seat. It is cruel.
Why we should mobilise against funding cuts to alcohol services
As a body of women who care passionately about opening up a world where alcohol isn’t the focus of people’s lives and champions people making their own choices around drinking, I believe we should stand with those who aren’t able to make a choice. Those who are trapped in a situation where, with the best will in the world, they cannot break-free of that cycle of drinking.
I’ve worked in an NHS drug and alcohol services centre where busy key workers are tired and overworked with bulging caseloads. I’ve seen people who require in-patient treatment to protect them from potentially fatal seizures during detox, but who can’t be offered a place due to funding limitations. The wait lists are long and only the very worst cases get a look in.
I’ve also seen a gardening initiatives for people overcoming alcohol addiction, where they get to connect with nature and see something grow. I’ve heard people say the programme changed their life. I’ve heard of people being prescribed Pilates or guitar lessons. I’ve heard of people developing skills and community that gives them reasons to continue to pursue a life of freedom. I’ve seen transformation through medical treatment, social initiatives and kindness. But these programmes are limited and have to turn people away regularly.
Having seen it happen, having seen the lives turned around, I will take on anyone who tells me it’s not worth it; that it doesn’t warrant further funding or that we shouldn’t protect the budget that offers such miraculous turn-arounds for their clients. The lives of people trapped in an addiction to alcohol are worth it. This is a hill I’m prepared to die on.
Written by Lauren Windle
Lauren Windle is a journalist, presenter, and author. She’s been sober since April 2014, has a Masters in Addiction Studies from King’s College London and runs a support programme for anyone seeking recovery from addiction in West London. You can connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @_Lauren_Celeste.