Adfam welcomes the recently released figures showing that drug-related deaths are declining (pdf). They demonstrate the extremely valuable work that drug and alcohol services have done to reduce risky behaviour, and show the need for continuing commitment to this work to minimize harm. However, Adfam would like to draw attention to the needs of bereaved families, who are often forgotten - sadly there are still thousands of these families every year. The families of drug and alcohol users have acute support needs which continue and often increase in the sad event of their death; they should therefore be able to access continued support.
Drug-related deaths are often sudden and unexpected, the person who dies is often young – drug misuse is responsible for one in seven deaths of people in their twenties – and substance-related death entails a kind of stigma which other bereaved families often do not experience: as one bereaved parent states, “I’m in despair, I’m angry and sad; I have a friend whose son died of cancer and it’s totally different – she can just be sad”. Families can even feel criticised by their relatives and friends – as one family member testifies, “my brother in law sent me a formal letter of condolence in which he said ‘if only we had all tried harder’ – but no-one had tried harder than I did”. They can also feel stigmatised by their own local communities, especially when the death is covered by local newspapers and families are identified by area, street and name. Death and bereavement are difficult to talk about at the best of times, but this is often amplified when drugs and alcohol are involved.
Adfam hears many cases of the families of drug and alcohol users not being afforded the same level of respect, attention and sympathy that would be given to others dealing with the untimely death of a loved one. One bereaved family member stated that “I had to make 5 different statements to the police: it was so hard and they didn’t seem to appreciate how difficult it was”.
Families affected by substance-related bereavement should be able to access emotional support, but often feel they are stuck between services. On one hand, they would not go to drug or alcohol agencies as their family member is no longer their client, and they would struggle to access dedicated services for families affected by drugs and alcohol because their particular situation may represent other service users’ worst fears about their own families; and on the other, they often do not feel themselves suited to dedicated bereavement counselling which does not have particular expertise in drug and alcohol issues.
These families also require information on specific and complex issues including legal advice and liaison with the police, courts and coroners – for example on procedures relating to the release of the body, which can be a lengthy and difficult process when the cause of death is not immediately clear, or concerning inquests. There is a lack of support and guidance in navigating these practical issues, which can be hugely affecting in a time of such emotional upheaval.
There is positive work being undertaken to prevent drug-related death not just with users themselves, but with their families and networks too - the evaluation of the recent Naloxone pilots (pdf)concluded that they ‘helped save lives’. Though it can be difficult to deal in such a hands-on, practical way with the chance that a loved one may die, many family members welcome the peace of mind that naloxone training can give.
This whole area is obviously one which Adfam feels is underdeveloped, and we are actively looking to do more to address the needs of bereaved families, and working in partnership with other organisations including DrugFAM – who are holding their annual Bereaved by Addiction conference on the 1st October – and Cruse Bereavement Care, who will be running a Footprints...Walk and Remember fundraising and sponsorship event on the 17th September.
- There were 2,747 drug poisoning deaths in 2010, with opiates responsible for the largest proportion. This was a 5% decrease on 2009. See the full figures (pdf).
- Estimates for the number of people affected by someone else’s drug or alcohol use range from 1.5 million to 8 million.
Adfam is the national umbrella organisation working to improve the quality of life for families affected by drugs and alcohol. For more information on Adfam’s work please call 020 7553 7641 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quotations from family members used here were sourced from DrugFAM. For more information see www.drugfam.co.uk.