Mr. McCrisken was invited to speak about the risks associated with taking prescription medication not properly prescribed by a doctor. He was joined on the panel by Mr. Gerry McConville, Director Falls Community Council and human rights solicitor Mr. Padraig Ó Muirigh, who chaired the event.

The Coroner began his talk by acknowledging that many people present in the hall sadly had personal experience of trying to get help for loved ones addicted to prescription drugs and that some had lost family members as a result of taking prescription drugs. He expressed a desire to learn from the experiences of these families to help him do his job better, noting that he is ‘always ready to learn’.

Mr. McCrisken then set out some stark facts and figures in relation to the over use and misuse of prescription drugs:

  • Tramadol, a prescription drug, has killed more people in NI than heroin.
  • Tramadol related deaths are decreasing in the UK but they are increasing in NI.
  • Fentanyl, a prescription drug has killed more people in NI than cocaine and ecstasy combined
  • 10-15 years ago it was usually one named drug that was found in a person’s system following a death from prescription drugs. Now it is 4-5 different drugs.
  • In the US there’s been a significant decrease in the number of heroin related deaths but a massive increase in deaths from opiates (a drug containing opium such as morphine or codeine) ; this pattern is likely to be replicated in NI.
  • the highest risk age group is the 25-34 year group, but under 18s are also a high risk group.
  • Opioids like tramadol and oxycodone are all stronger than morphine.

The Coroner, who had previously spoken out publicly about the dangers of prescription drugs, underlined the fact that Northern Ireland, like Scotland, has a very serious problem with prescription drugs.  The extent of this problem has been documented in an investigation by the Detail, which examined millions of prescription records from across the UK, including 3.5 million prescriptions written by GPs in Northern Ireland over a six month period. That investigation found that Northern Ireland had one of the world’s highest prescription rates for antidepressant medicines.

Mr. McCrisken then moved on to talk about what can be done to address what can be done to tackle this epidemic. He acknowledged that while not all prescription drugs come from GPs prescribing them to patients, the reality is that where there’s a decrease in prescription rates there’s a decrease in deaths. 

He informed the audience that as the Coroner he has the power to issue a Rule 23 reports to the various statutory agencies, outlining what needs to be done to prevent further deaths. Finally, he called for the adoption of a Drugs Deaths Down to Zero approach, similar to the international Suicide Down to Zero initiative to deaths by suicide. 

Mr. Gerry McConville, Director Falls Community Council, also addressed the meeting, communicating some very clear messages based on their work with individuals and families through their Community Drugs Programme .  Among the points he made were the following:

  • Access to services is not there
  • We need to take the stigma away from drug misuse
  • Support for families is needed
  • The issue around dual diagnosis need to be addressed as they are preventing people accessing the help they need
  • GPs are prescribing drugs too easily
  • People are increasingly buying drugs online
  • The waiting time and capacity of the Substitute Prescribing System in Belfast means that most people who need it cannot access it ( waiting time is 6 months in theory and longer again in practice )

Mr. McConville called on GPs to ‘step up to the mark’ and tackle the oversupply of prescription drugs. This is a key campaign demand of the Beyond a Spin of the Wheel campaign, launched by the Mental Health Rights Network in June 2017.

He also called for the new Programme for Government to include a drug and alcohol strategy with ‘teeth’, one with the goal of reducing to zero the number of deaths from prescription drugs. He noted that this strategy will need proper resourcing, something which is currently lacking. Finally, Mr. McConville called on the government and statutory agencies to listen to families who are struggling on a daily basis with this issue.

The presentations were followed by a Q & A, with many family members who have been directly affected by this issue calling for urgent action. The need to address the over prescription of drugs by GPs was repeatedly raised, as was the need for a walk in, 24/7 centre to provide help to individuals and families struggling with this issue.

Following the meeting, members of the Belfast Mental Health Rights Group took the opportunity to provide Mr. McCrisken with a copy of the S.A.F.E.R campaign report ‘Families Bereaved by Suicide: The Right to Timely and Appropriate Support’.