'People treat addiction like it’s a choice. It isn’t'

One line resonated powerfully with members of Dame Carol Black’s audience during her inaugural lecture for Northlands’ new ‘Knowledge Exchange Series 2023’ at Ulster University’s Derry Campus, on Wednesday evening. It was a question she said she had asked herself, midway through her two-part review of illicit drug use which had been commissioned by the UK government: “How have we got to this situation without an outcry?”

Northlands staff said local people may have asked themselves the same question as they watched the death toll from alcohol and drug addiction in Northern Ireland surpass that for the worst year of the Troubles in 1972, when almost 500 people died in the violence. In 2020, around 570 people lost their lives to addiction here, and the trajectory is upwards.Hours before her lecture, Dame Carol – an independent advisor on drugs to the UK government – had been to see the site of Northlands’ proposed new centre of excellence for treating addiction. She also visited the charity’s current premises, near Altnagelvin Hospital, where she spoke to staff, board members and service users. The academic’s lecture was entitled, ‘Combating Drug Misuse: A Complex Challenge’, and the PSNI Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, and the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, were among those in the audience to hear her.Dame Carol spoke about the stigma with which drug dependency was viewed, even in the health sector. Who was speaking out for drug-dependent people, she wondered, and why wasn’t drug dependency seen as a chronic relapsing and remitting disease?

In her role as an independent advisor, she had warned the British government that it had either to tackle the drug problem or deal with the consequences. “People treat addiction like it’s a choice,” she said. “It isn’t.”Dame Carol’s presentation reflected the complexity of the challenge of addiction, and covered a wide range of issues, including the cost of illicit drug use to society; the use of children to supply drugs; the need for new models of treatment and more investment (to help provide jobs and accommodation); the need for a wide range of sectors to work together to tackle addiction; and the need for long-term follow-up for those suffering from addiction.”Recovery is a process,” Dame Carol said, “that often takes time to achieve, and effort to maintain.”

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Her message chimed perfectly with Northlands’ view of the importance of after-care support.There was loud applause at the conclusion of the inaugural lecture, which was followed with a question-and-answer session. People who had suffered addiction, or whose lives had been affected by it, shared their experiences and concerns, and the audience also heard from people working in various local agencies to tackle the problem of addiction.

Dame Carol met staff at Northlands to find out how the centre delivered programmes including after-care for service users
Dame Carol Black with Northlands' Head of Treatment, Tommy Canning, and the PSNI Chief Constable, Simon Byrne.
ARC founder, Gary Rutherford, was among those who took part in a question-and-answer session following Dame Carol's lecture.
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Dame Carol addresses the audience at the inaugural lecture in Northlands' new 'Knowledge Exchange Series 2023'.
After her lecture, Dame Carol (left) spoke to audience members including SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP (second left) and PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne (second from right).
Dame Carol (third left) visited the site of the proposed new centre of excellence along with members of the Northlands board.