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Spiralling demand for addiction support

Since the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, Southend-based UK rehab group Step by Step Recovery has seen spiralling demand for addiction support from people with addiction to alcohol, cocaine and prescription painkillers. This is a common picture right across the UK.

The rehab provider, which also has an outpatient clinic in Harley Street, London, says it has seen a worrying increase in enquiries from people struggling with ‘socially acceptable’ dependencies. These include alcohol and prescription medication, including opioids for pain management, and Pregabalin – used to treat epilepsy, anxiety, and nerve pain.

The escalation of this spiralling demand has led the clinic to launch ‘New Way to Live,’ a free, national addiction support scheme to help address the problem.

Clinical lead and addiction therapist Matthew Reece, says:

“We’ve seen a significant increase in people reaching out for support since the first lockdown, especially from clients who have previously had recovery and relapsed.

“Our clinics also saw a huge increase in the number of families contacting us, because their wives, partners or mothers were struggling with alcohol addiction. During lockdown, women were the biggest single group needing support and being admitted to the rehab.”

New Way to Live

Earlier this year, Step by Step launched the national ‘New Way to Live’ addiction support scheme from its Essex treatment centre, offering people free peer mentoring help, after figures revealed up to 39% of former addicts may have relapsed in lockdown.

Group treatment director Danielle Byatt, says ex-addicts continue to be in desperate need of additional, remote care and support:

“Those leaving treatment go from receiving support 24-hours-a-day, back to sometimes difficult home lives. We want to build the largest nationwide, peer mentoring network so that people don’t fall back into addiction. We know that relapsing can result in more people dying from an addiction, which is both tragic and avoidable.

Pre-COVID, face-to-face aftercare and support groups would be a vital part of an addict’s ongoing treatment plan. Although meetings were still happening over Zoom, socialising and building connections with people was something that the pandemic took away. The new scheme is a vital service which has been helping to bridge the gap that the virus has left – supporting people.”

Karl Finn’s life has been reformed

Lead mentor, Karl Finn, knows first-hand what a difference the service will make. Since going into recovery over 18 months ago, his life has been transformed from a homeless, former alcoholic with kidney failure to successful support worker at Step by Step Recovery’s Southend clinic, The Lighthouse.

He said:

“We know that many people relapsed in lockdown and are currently struggling. The usual ways of meeting people and finding a sponsor to mentor you haven’t existed for over a year. We want to support and provide training for people, to create the network that has been missing and then they, in turn, can help others.

It’s never too late to get help to recover. I’ve gone from being alone, homeless and hopeless to being sober and ‘clean’, with a partner, a flat and a job. I owe it all to treatment from a caring team of specialists, who gave me a blueprint for a happier life, so that I can now give back and help others.”

Have your bad habits become an addiction?

Matthew Reece: clinical lead and addiction therapist
Matthew Reece: clinical lead and addiction therapist

As well as an increase in people in recovery relapsing, over the past 18 months, many others have developed unwanted habits, including drinking too much and smoking more.

In August 2021, research was released by Cancer Research suggesting that the number of young adults who smoke in England rose by about a quarter in the first lockdown.[i]

The study also found there was an increased prevalence of high-risk drinking among all groups (40%), but the rise was greater among women (55%) and people from less advantaged backgrounds (64%).

But how can you tell if your dependencies have developed into a full-blown addiction and need professional support?

Matthew says one of the key signs of addiction is often planning where and when you will have access and perhaps hiding it from others. He explains:

“Your dependence may be impacting you financially, making you feel physically unwell or binging on mood swings.

The next step with any addiction is to admit you have a problem. Without this initial acknowledgement, it’s difficult to form any kind of recovery.

Tell someone else. Addiction is usually secretive so by sharing it with someone else you are exposing it. It’s important to ask for help from people you can trust – don’t try to do it on your own. Speak to friends and family or look for self-help groups.

Acknowledge the harm it’s doing and the reasons why you want to change this addiction. Recognise the difference in your life without it. For example, how much money you’ve saved or how much more time you’ve got to spend with your family.”


[iv]YouGov survey commissioned by Action on Addiction showed that a quarter of adults reported drinking more during lockdown and 39%, who were previously in recovery for an addiction, had a relapse.

And organisation Drink Aware said in a report issued in October 2020, that research conducted by YouGov between August and September 2020 into the impact of the first lockdown on drinking behaviour in the UK, showed that the proportion of women drinking four times a week or more significantly increased since 2019 (up from 12% to 16%).[iii]

As Drink Aware states:

“Many women were already struggling and unhappy with their lives before the pandemic and coronavirus made the situation for many far worse. Often women have given up careers to bring up children and suddenly they found themselves stuck at home, middle-aged, feeling as if ‘life had passed them by’. Either the children had left or they had extra pressure to home-school them and it all became too much.

People often use alcohol as a way to escape reality and this has certainly been the case for many of the UK’s middle-aged women over the past 18 months.”

All of this is familiar to the British Liver Trust, one of the UK’s main charities dealing with the medical consequences of alcohol abuse. Its helpline saw a 150% increase in calls from March 2019 to March 2020 and an 88% increase during the period of the first lockdown.[ii]

Prescription medicine

Opioid dependency in the UK is a significant and growing problem – with a growing number of people becoming hooked on prescription painkillers.

Many people associate the term “drug addiction” with illicit drugs, when in fact, some of the most abused drugs of the last few years happen to be prescription medication.

As Matthew stresses:

“A misconception often associated with prescription drugs is that they pose no major risks, even when taken long-term because they’re considered legal. However, the last ten years has seen a significant rise in dependence on drugs such as Xanax, Pregabalin and Codeine in the UK.”

A 2019 review published by Public Health England (PHE) assessing drug addiction and dependency, found that prescriptions for addictive medications have increased by 3 per cent over the last five years.[v]

However, this isn’t just a problem for those receiving prescription medication. These types of drugs have become more easily accessible through street dealers and the dark web. The same review found that over 7 per cent of adults had taken a prescription-only painkiller that wasn’t prescribed to them.

Some of the most regularly abused prescription drugs include:

  • Benzodiazepines  (benzos) (prescribed for anxiety) – includes Xanax and Valium
  • Opioids (used to treat chronic pain)
  • Gabapentin (used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain) and pregabalin (prescribed for anxiety).

Drugs such as benzos and opioids are meant for short-term use and are known to be ineffective when taken on a long-term basis (over three months). Similarly, benzos are not recommended for use past 28 days. However, the rate at which these drugs are being abused is increasing, with a spiralling demand for addiction support from more and more people seeking help after developing an addiction to prescription drugs.

Matthew added:

“The problem with prescribing an addictive medication for certain health problems is that many people struggle to function once their prescription has finished or they no longer have access to it. As a result, rehab clinics are reporting more patients being admitted for dependencies on drugs like Xanax, Valium, Codeine and Pregabalin.”

The health risks are clear – overdosing on opioids is both easy and common. In 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics, 2,263 of the 4,561 deaths from drug poisoning across England and Wales involved opiates (natural opioids, such as heroin) – 49.6 per cent of drug poisonings registered during that year.[vi]

What is Xanax?

Xanax (Alprazolam) is a benzodiazepine typically prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders. It works by depressing the central nervous system, producing feelings of calm and relaxation, although many people abuse it for its fast-acting sedating effects. It’s not uncommon for people to use benzos like Xanax and Valium with other drugs such as stimulants or depressants.

What is Codeine?

The prescribing of strong opioid drugs, such as Codeine, OxyContin and Fentanyl, as long-term solutions for chronic pain, is becoming a major problem in the UK. The use of these drugs for a prolonged period can lead to physical and psychological dependence. Eventually, the drug stops producing the same effects as the body builds up a tolerance to it.

What is Pregabalin?

Pregabalin is part of a group of drugs known as anticonvulsants, which work by slowing down the brain’s impulses to reduce the occurrence of seizures. While anticonvulsants aren’t typically considered when talking about addiction, people are abusing Pregabalin because of the calming feelings it produces, as well as its ability to enhance the effects of other drugs.

When to seek help

How do you know if you need professional help? Signs that you can’t tackle a problem alone could be:

  • becoming obsessed by your dependency
  • scheming to allow you access to what you feel you need
  • having a drink or taking something in secret and hoarding it
  • depression, feeling anxious and irritable and being physically unwell.

And signs that someone you care about may have a problem can include:

  • being unavailable and disappearing unexpectedly
  • mood swings
  • unmanageable behaviour
  • being dishonest
  • change in appearance.

Where to go for help

Step by step Recovery clinic has seen a spiralling demand for addiction support

Step by Step lounge
Step by Step Lounge
Step by Step in patient facilities
Step by Step inpatient facilities







For more information about Step by Step Recovery call 0800 170 1222 or visit https://stepbysteprecovery.co.uk/rehab/alcohol/essex/. You can also look locally for self-help groups, NHS support or contact Faces and Voices in Recovery – a national charity made up of individuals in recovery. Find out more at  www.facesandvoicesofrecoveryuk.org


[i] https://news.cancerresearchuk.org/2021/08/25/smoking-among-young-adults-increased-by-25-during-first-lockdown/
[ii] https://britishlivertrust.org.uk/
[iii] https://www.dropbox.com/s/o12jhk481eovncx/drinkaware-monitor-2020-report-v4-0.pdf?dl=0
[iv] https://www.actiononaddiction.org.uk/media/464/summary-of-findings.pdf?1591598011
[v] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prescribed-medicines-review-report
[vi] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsrelatedtodrugpoisoninginenglandandwales/2020


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