On Friday 21st February, the South East Regional Drug & Alcohol Task Force (SERDATF) launched the first three-year strategy for 2020-2023 at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). The launch was attended by Task Force members, service users, families and statutory, community and voluntary organisations who were all well represented.

The event was opened by the President of WIT, Prof. William Donnelly who welcomed guests and particularly expressed his delight at the fact that WIT staff had been involved in the research supporting the Strategy as well as the development of the strategy and its launch at the campus. He hoped that further links with SERDATF and other organisations would enable mutual support and ongoing development opportunities for all concerned in the future.

Laurence Wrenne, Chairperson of SERDATF, thanked Professor Donnelly and WIT for agreeing to generously host the event and wanted to put on record the invaluable support of Dr. Michele Foley and her team at the college for their research and dedicated work on the strategy itself.

He outlined the background to the strategy’s development within SERDATF and the broader remit of Task Forces that are obliged to undertake the provision of a local strategy reflecting the National Drug Strategy, including tackling alcohol misuse, at the regional level. This was a key aim for him as Chairperson and he was delighted with the support of SERDATF and funding from the Drugs Policy Unit in 2017 to enable this to finally happen.

In terms of moving the strategy forward, he envisaged that SERDATF would have to deliver it through partnership working from the ground-up, bringing organisations and communities together locally and across the region in developing bespoke responses to issues and supporting and learning from one another.

A key target for the Strategy was effective stakeholder service user and peer-led development in the region to shape responses and initiatives locally especially in building recovery.

The Chairperson flagged the fact that SERDATF, like all Task Forces, had lost a lot of funding in the recession – some 700,000 euros in the South East alone – and that while Government had trickled down some new funding, the extent of the impact of substance misuse at every level in the region needed urgent resources at a more realistic level if the Task Force was to make progress.

Funding was a prime consideration but so was the commitment of experienced individuals and groups in putting their time and enthusiasm into supporting local responses and the work of the strategy overall. This was something that SERDATF had to develop across the partnership.

Finally, on the broader frame, the Chairperson called for A Citizens Assembly review of the National Drug Strategy, the role of Task Forces and legislation around illegal drugs.

Dr. Michelle Foley, WIT gave a short presentation on the ‘Situational Analysis of Substance Misuse in the South East Region’ which WIT undertook in 2018/2019. Outlining the process and engagement around the region in the research greatly helped in grounding recommendations for the strategy itself and she thanked all of those who had contributed in person or sent in comments on the draft strategy. She highlighted key findings from the research amongst which were that more older people in the region had alcohol misuse and related health issues than in other regions of the country. She told the audience that 433 people (mostly men) had died directly from drug-related poisoning from 2004 to 2016 in the region and another 235 cases of non-poisoning drug -related deaths over the same period, which is 668 individuals overall. This is a worrying and increasing reality for services and families and communities in the region.

There followed a Panel Discussion, facilitated by Dr. Mike Watts from Advanced Recovery Ireland, with Susan Doherty, Paul Goff, Samantha Joyce, Declan Burke and Marie Comerford each offering their own insights and lived experience of substance misuse and its impact on their respective lives. The discussion really helped to focus the whole purpose of what the strategy was trying to achieve and the many ways that services, families and service users were coping and also positively moving into recovery in their lives. Paul Goff, HSE Substance Misuse Service manager for the South East Region summarised the discussion and linked the strategy initiatives with providing an agreed approach to supporting people in tackling the complexity of this issue.

The Strategy Launch came at the end of the morning with the Chairperson inviting all of those present to display their copies of the strategy aloft for the official photograph of the event.