Friday 20 September 2019

Ex-heroin addicts on methadone endure lives of stigma and isolation, new report finds

Methadone: A valuable part of a detox programme, but often used as a 'keep them off the streets' type panacea
Methadone: A valuable part of a detox programme, but often used as a 'keep them off the streets' type panacea
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

A bleak insight into the stigma and isolation felt by former heroin addicts who are now stabilised long-term on methadone is revealed in a new report today.

The dominant experience of being a methadone user was one of stigma, with many attempting to conceal their methadone use for fear of being judged.

Methadone maintenance treatment can bring stability to the lives of drug users, but they need multifaceted and multidisciplinary supports to achieve social reintegration. 

The new research report commissioned by Dún Laoghaire Rathdown Drug and Alcohol Taskforce (DLRDATF) and is launched today Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills,Mary Mitchell O’Connor.

The report, “Just Maintaining the Status Quo”?, written by a team of researchers from Trinity College Dublin looked at the experiences of25 people who have been on methadone treatment for 10 years or more. The average age of research participants was 43.

Commenting at the launch today by Dr Paula Mayock of Trinity’s School of Social Work and Social Policy said: “This is the first study in Ireland that specifically focuses on people who are long-term participants in methadone maintenance treatment.

“We found that levels of social reintegration amongst our participants was exceptionally low.  Most did not have access to the kind of economic, social or personal resources that are needed to bolster and sustain the recovery process.

Key findings of the research include:

The average age that research participants first used drugs was 14 years old.  The average age that they first used heroin was 19 years old.

Methadone treatment impacted participants’ lives positively by bringing stability and normality to their lives. At the same time, participants reported negative sentiments about methadone and the treatment system more broadly, feeling they had little say in their treatment, particularly in relation to long-term rehabilitation planning.

The majority of participants in the research study had low levels of educational attainment, with nearly 80pc cent leaving school by Junior Certificate level.

Mental health problems were widely reported, with depression being the most commonly-cited mental health condition. Some participants cited lifelong mental health conditions stemming from childhood. Chronic physical health problems – including hepatitis C, liver cirrhosis and a range of respiratory, renal and coronary diseases – were reported.

Research participants had extremely low levels of social integration. The vast majority were unemployed and did not see any realistic prospect of employment.  Many were homeless or precariously housed with over half the participants experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives.

Dr Barry Cullen, coordinator of the taskforce said :“Methadone treatment works as a public health measure and individually, but it inadvertently compounds users’ experience of social exclusion. The daily life of a long-term methadone user is characterised by seclusion and loneliness, with few dependable or trusted people in their lives.

“While the obstacles they face are multiple and complex, we must not accept that this vulnerable group will live their lives on the margins of our community.  Social reintegration is about access to housing; access to education, training and employment; and the opportunity and support to repair relationships. 

“Agencies operating in these fields must establish relevant programmes and services.  For our part, the Task Force will convene a collaborative team, involving housing support, the Local Employment Service, the Community Addiction Team, and family support to deliver more effective and holistic supports to long-term methadone-users in our community.”

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