Call for new system to help people with addictions and mental health issues

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Steve Thornton is calling for a dual diagnosis system to help people with addictions access mental health support. - Credit: Steve Thornton

People with substance misuse problems in North Somerset are struggling to access mental health support.

Healthwatch North Somerset (HWNS) is calling for a dual diagnosis system to be put in place to help people get the support they need more quickly, after a survey found some respondents have spent years trying to get the help they need.

The majority of people surveyed said they were unable to access help for mental health problems until they had kicked their drink or drug addictions.

But HWNS said this can be a huge challenge as drinking or drug taking is often a symptom of underlying mental health issues.

Seventy-six per cent of people who responded to HWNS's survey said they had relapsed because their mental health issues were not addressed. A further 74 per cent of those surveyed also believed they were treated differently by health professionals because of their addictions.

Steve Thornton, from North Somerset, said he was ‘pushed around the mental health system for many years’ until he got the support he needed.

Steve said he used to drink to help ‘reset’ his brain as adverse childhood experiences caused his body to activate the fight or flight response system. Repeat activation caused high levels of stress hormones which often left Steve unable to function.

He said: “Quite often people have drink or drug addictions which are a symptom of an underlying problem. It is these problems that make them drink.

"I was feeling overloaded and could barely function. I felt really ill and I used to drink to self-medicate.

“The message from health professionals is very much 'get off the drink and we’ll treat you'. But that’s not possible. You can’t treat people like that it should be a dual diagnosis.

“I happened to see a counsellor at We Are With You (previously Addaction) and they identified some childhood experiences that had caused lasting anxieties.

"I was able to get medications to help with these and thankfully I don’t need to drink anymore. I feel more relaxed in my own skin."

Steve has spoken out help other people who might be using addictions as a way of dealing with their mental health problems - and is supporting HWNS’s recommendation for a dual diagnosis of tackling addictions and mental health at the same time to aid long-term recovery.

Dual diagnosis systems are already in place in many other regions across the UK.

Vicky Marriott, area manager at HWNS, said: "The public has been telling us for years that they bounce between services. Having to navigate your way around and through what's on offer in the NHS and organisations in the community can be very hard.

“This piece of work has highlighted the consequences of this fragmented system. We are working to make sure the voices of the people we spoke to will lead to a better outcome for them.

“These vulnerable people suffer discrimination and stigma, sometimes even from health professionals. Our report has been all about listening to them, understanding how services can work together better, and influencing those who plan and run services.”

North Somerset Council has now set up a new group to look into the recommendations made in HWNS’s report.

Jo Walker, chief executive of the council said: “We will focus on mental health support for people in recovery, given the recent findings in the Healthwatch report 2020.

“We are forming a cross-agency mental health task and finish group, which will report to the Health and Wellbeing Board. We look forward to working with Healthwatch in the future.”

Vicky Marriott added: “We appreciate that it is being taken seriously and look forward to the developments that ensure people who experience coexisting problems with substance misuse and mental health, are given the right help at the right time."

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