THE loss of at least 15 lives on the streets of Belfast this summer has brought the drugs problem sharply into focus. Ahead of Overdose Prevention Day on August 31, Extern's Assistant Director Mal Byrne looks at what can be done to tackle this issue.

For organisations like Extern, working daily on the frontline with people facing problem drug use, this summer has been one that we are unlikely to forget for a long time.

The loss of at least 15 lives on the streets of Belfast over the past few months has been a sobering reminder of the scale and impact of problem drug use as faced by countless people in cities and towns across the UK and Ireland.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that this is not a new story for organisations like ours. Every day we deal with the tragedy of those who have become caught in the cycle of addiction.

The people behind the addiction

We have been asked many times – by press, public and politicians alike – what is behind these most recent deaths. One could argue that there are 15 reasons for these, as each person we support has experience of numerous complex challenges in their lives.

Each and every one of these people – and let us not forget that they are people – is there for a multitude of reasons. This includes everything from mental health issues and childhood trauma to family breakdown or domestic abuse.

Another question we have been asked many times is what can be done about this problem. And in truth so much already is being done to save lives on the streets.

From our ongoing needle exchange service – providing sterile injecting equipment to drug users – to our Naloxone training programme, which equips people in the use of the life-saving anti-overdose drug, Extern has for many years been at the forefront of finding solutions to this complex issue.

Impact of partnership working

Partnership working, for example through the multi-agency Complex Lives programme, has also had an important impact on ensuring that resources can be properly focused where they are needed most within the city centre.

And yet so much more needs to be done. Better resourcing of these already existing solutions is one very achievable step, including learning to work smarter with what we have – an example of which is the training of PSNI beat officers in carrying Naloxone, as well as other key agencies and individuals.

The immediate creation of rapid referral pathways – enabling people to access supports more swiftly – is desperately needed and would also have a tangible impact.

In the longer term, however, we must look at more lasting solutions, such as the creation of an Overdose Prevention Facility in Northern Ireland.

Such a facility would allow for a safer environment for people to inject and manage potential overdose, access health care, pathways to treatment and other essential services, as well as obtain sterile injecting equipment. This could also lead to a marked reduction in discarded needles and syringes on our streets and help improve community safety and cleanliness.

We must also acknowledge that this is a health rather than a criminal justice issue - for too long we have criminalised people who in any other area of society would be considered deserving of appropriate support and care.

Leadership and willpower are now required

In the past these would have been radical and unthinkable ideas for Northern Ireland. But much has changed since then, not least the doubling of drug deaths in a decade to over 200 a year in the most recent government statistics.

Leadership and willpower are now required from those in influential positions in order to implement ideas such as these.

As the summer draws to a close, so too will the focus on this issue. The agenda will once again turn to other issues – fuel prices, the cost of living crisis, the situation at Stormont, and so on.

For those coping with problem substance use, though, the struggle goes on, particularly during the winter which has its own inherent challenges. And for our organisation, and others like us, the work continues every day to support these individuals.

This is a milestone moment, the chance for us to make a positive and lasting change. In memory of those who have lost their lives this summer, for the many who have gone before - and for those who sadly will follow - we must not let their deaths be in vain.

For details on Extern's range of drug programmes, visit here