Northern Ireland news

NHS waiting lists for people trying to come off heroin reaches six months

Heroin use has increased dramatically in Belfast over the past 10 years, with waiting lists for addiction services escalating
Seanín Graham

HEROIN addicts seeking help on the NHS have a wait of more than six months, with a specialist substitute prescribing service at capacity.

Figures seen by The Irish News for September show that 76 people struggling with addiction are facing delays of 29 weeks in the Belfast trust to get onto a specialist programme.

However, a councillor who works with the homeless, said the official figures do not reflect the extent of the problem as many more cannot even get onto the waiting list for the service.

Paul McCusker said he had received correspondence which revealed the trust's substitute prescribing service has been "unable to induct new clients" due to "limited capacity".

The SDLP representative warned that heroin was being was being transported into Belfast every day from Dublin "by bus and train" and was easily accessible since lockdown restrictions eased.

"I asked the trust if their service for people wanting to get off opiates and use substitutes like Methodone was still operational. They came back last Thursday to say they couldn't take any more people on. That's not just the 76 people on the waiting list but also another set of people trying to get onto that list," he said.

"People who use drugs for whatever reason, when it comes to that stage of accepting they have a problem and wanting to get help, it's a big step in their lives. It's now time for the trusts to look at other options and engage with other services, such as the community and voluntary sector, which is being done in other parts of the UK and the Republic."

Mr McCusker is based at St Patrick's Soup Kitchen in the city centre most weekends and spoke of the impact of those affected by drug abuse and who are "desperate" to get clean.

"The youngest person I know using heroin is 16 and the oldest is a man in his late 60s, it affects all ages. The trust need to see the devastation this is causing on the streets of Belfast," he said.

As someone who has worked with the homeless for the past decade, the councillor admitted he broke down recently after a young woman sought help.

"One story sticks with me and it's a 21-year-old who came to the soup kitchen very tearful. She told us she didn't see her life without heroin. She spends £200 a day and has to prostitute herself to buy this drug.

"She told me if she got the opportunity to access the services, she would do that. She cried and she cried for about an hour as we sat and talked to her.

"She was putting herself in extreme danger. She is one story but there's a lot more people like her caught up in a cycle of addiction and see no way out of it. The trust has a responsibility to step up and ensure people get the help and support they need. People have a right to access healthcare and they're being denied those rights."

A trust spokesman confirmed its substitute prescribing team is seeing a rise in referrals.

"Waiting times are longer than we wish, however we are working to address this issue. The waiting list information is reviewed on a weekly basis," he said.

He added that new assessements of those on waiting lists recommenced "as of this week".

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