A discussion on addiction in Northern Ireland has taken place following a performance of ‘Madame Geneva’ at the Lyric Theatre Belfast.
Macha playwright Jo Egan was joined onstage by Elma O’Callaghan, a senior support worker from Rosemount House.
Key points raised in the discussion were: that the cost of addiction to society is great (£900million per year) – spend includes health, justice and more, but the personal cost to the individual is greater. Most cases of addiction can be traced back to trauma. The key to fighting addiction is looking at mental health. In Northern Ireland, cases of PTSD are huge and often lead to addiction.
The gender issue was also highlighted in the discussion. Men quite often feel like they have to suppress emotions and feelings. Men are told not to cry or show their pain, which can aid addiction. There is an expectation of women to nurture, to manage, to juggle. There are no long-term dedicated places like Rosemount House for women only. Women’s cases are also complex. They may have children, and need somewhere that helps rebuild broken relationships; or women who have experienced domestic abuse – Elma noted one woman who could find a women-only AA and had to go to a mixed group. Her partner accused of her of trying to meet other men and beat her when he found out. Rosemount House are currently seeking funding for a similar hostel for women, with a two year addiction programme. There are approximately 12 women currently sleeping on the street, most of them in their early twenties.
Playwright Jo Egan reflected that the gin craze in the 1700s portrayed in the play was the first time society had to cope with mass addiction, and that NI is mirroring that now. Many young people are dying from drugs; outside of alcohol and hard drugs, we have many addicted to prescription drugs. A post-conflict society self-medicating.
One audience member asked if there was a perception that addiction only impacts those from working-class communities. Elma says residents of Rosemount House have included solicitors, teachers, engineers. The difference is, for some people, it is harder accessing services. But, mostly, it’s down to the individual and the support they are offered. One man with alcohol addiction went to the doctor to get some for DTs. The doctor told him to have a drink.
How do we fix it? There have been thousands of pages of research written on addiction, mental health and homelessness. Nothing is changing. Even with the deaths of people on the streets in the past few years (all of whom had a place of residency), we are not getting it right. We are not taking the recommendations of the strategies, we are not implementing them. Money has been invested in this research. We should be seeing change. Elma says criminalising people with addiction and mental health is a revolving door. We also need to make society aware of the wider effects of addiction, especially to children, and families.
Final comments: we live in a fragile world. People need support, respect, patience and understanding. They say it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to raise awareness. Communities can make change.