A group of NUI Galway students will hold a vigil outside the shell of a burned down addiction counselling centre in Merlin Park next week to highlight their concern over a plan to relocate the service to the psychiatric unit at UHG.
The university’s Society of Students for Sensible Drug Policy is taking the action on Friday December 20 at 6.15pm in the hope that the event will serve as a platform to facilitate public discussion on the likely effects of the HSE West’s controversial proposal. The public is invited to attend.
To highlight the need for sensitivity, anonymity and confidentiality that is required when working with services of this nature participants will wear plain white masks which will be available on the night.
Emmet Smith, the PRO of the the student organisation, describes the services provided by the addiction counselling centre - which caters for 50 people daily, one third of whom are women - as a “lifeline”. He is keen to see it remain on the grounds of Merlin Park, a discreet, private location and describes the planned move as “outrageous”.
The students’ action comes in the wake of mounting opposition from clients, politicians, a current and former addiction counsellor and other concerned parties about the move. The facility, which has been based in a unit at Merlin Park for the past 26 years, was extensively damaged in a fire earlier this year. It is currently accommodated in a temporary premises. Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, who has been to the forefront of the campaign to halt the transfer of services to UHG’s psychiatric unit, says this new “secure” location will discourage people from accessing this vital service. Service users agree, claiming it will result in a lack of privacy, ease of access and will “stigmatise” clients.
Mr Smith says the mental health unit is already overcrowded due to the Government’s “Vision for Change” plan.
“This vision will see not only the relocation of the addiction service but the closure of 22 beds at St Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe. To facilitate this closure, management intend to put 10 extra beds in this same secure unit [at UHG].. How are they missing the simple fact that there is no room? Why then bring even more people into the already overcrowded city hospital when there is a perfectly good site in Merlin Park where the addiction service has operated very successfully for over 25 years?
“These are all very short term solutions and in the long term these decisions are going to impact very negatively on both addiction and mental health services, to the detriment of service users and their health.”
He says the student group wants to raise awareness and co-ordinate a community response to reverse the HSE’s “outrageous decision”.
“Why won’t they agree to meet with those affected by their decisions? What do they have to hide from the public they serve? We believe policy must be sensible and evidence based. However, we seem to find ourselves dealing with a management structure that makes up the rules as it goes along with little regard for best practice or for patients’ welfare. It is evident that the public are not even to be dignified with a face to face meeting with the powers that be. The action group has been repeatedly denied such courtesy. The HSE has refused to take on board any advice from clinical specialists working at ground level, instead they have threatened disciplinary action in order to neutralise them.”
Joe Treacy, a clinical specialist in addiction at the HSE’s addiction counselling service at Merlin Park and a spokesperson for the Psychiatric Nurses’ Association in the area of alcohol and drugs, says the service deals with a “steady trickle” of students from NUI Galway and GMIT, several of whom are referred by GPs. Many of them tend to be first year students experimenting with alcohol and drugs for the first time.
“They don’t realise what they are taking. They are using “shots”, a growing phenomenon for the past five years, and do not realise the risks involved. You can overdose very quickly. They do not understand the pharmacology of alcohol.”
He says it is a “national scandal” that there is no comprehensive public drug/alcohol treatment service in Galway or the west.
“There is no other service available to people unless you have private health insurance or are able to pay. Galway is one of the fastest growing cities in Ireland, a country in which 600 people took their own lives last year and alcohol was an attributable factor in some cases. The degree of domestic violence increases around Christmas and the women’s hostel in Galway is full. Alcohol is one of the dominant reasons for people going into shelters at this time of year. And then to think the HSE West handed back €3m to the Department of Health in health savings when services such as our own are on their knees.”
He points out that €70m is spent on marketing alcohol and the total health “clean-up” resulting from drinking last year was €3.5 billion. Meanwhile 2,000 hospital beds are taken up every night in Ireland due to alcohol. The Pharmaceutical Society has said if it dispensed medicine like off-licences and pubs dispense alcohol it would lose its licence.
The problem of alcohol abuse is compounded by the availability of cheap alcohol, he believes. “All of this illustrates the urgent need for a comprehensive service to deal with addiction issues, he stresses. “This is what is needed, not a ‘hot desk’ where four other users could be queuing up [for support]. How many more young people will die in the city, accidentally or otherwise, before people sit up and take notice? We cannot keep ignoring this ongoing epidemic of drinking among the young. If we do, it’s at our peril.”
Mr Treacy, who works as a volunteer with the St Vincent de Paul Society, says increasing alcohol consumption levels are in line with the rise in poverty as a result of the recession. “Where there is poverty there is alcohol and the level of poverty in Galway is the worst I’ve seen it in four years, it’s incredible. The St Vincent de Paul Society is doing trojan work and without it there would be shocking poverty levels here.”
He outlines that the original addiction counselling service building, which was destroyed by fire, was heavily insured so it would make sense to use this money to provide a new premises in Merlin Park.
“We want an appropriate building which is user friendly, has parking and affords a little confidentiality and respect to others. There are loads of empty buildings in Merlin Park. We currently operate from two rooms in the nurses’ home there. We don’t have appropriate space. There is no room for our Antabuse [medication used for the treatment of alcohol abuse and dependency] clinic. That went with the fire. The HSE continues to ignore the damage alcohol cases, it’s a case of continuing to pass the parcel.”
People interested in taking part in the Merlin Park vigil are asked to contact Emmett Smith at (086 ) 3580654 or email [email protected]