What happens in an alcohol detox unit?

What happens in an alcohol detox unit?

By Gill Dummigan
Health Correspondent, BBC North West

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    3 days ago

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  • coronavirus pandemic
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Problematic alcohol consumption has increased during the Covid pandemic

The number of deaths directly caused by alcohol rose in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, realizing fears among experts about the harmful effects of increased alcohol consumption at home.

After remaining largely flat for nearly two decades, alcohol-related deaths rose 19% to 8,974 in 2020 – the biggest year-on-year increase on record.

While figures for 2021 – which saw more lockdowns and social isolation – have yet to be released by the Office for National Statistics, research commissioned by the NHS suggests there could be thousands of excess deaths.

This will further expand the alcohol detox centers. But what is going on in them? How does the treatment work and what about the patients?

The BBC has been granted exclusive access to the largest NHS inpatient drug treatment center in the UK – the Chapman-Barker Unit in Prestwich, Greater Manchester, which is run by the Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust,

We describe here a typical day in the life of the centre, its staff and its patients.

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The first of the day’s scheduled admissions arrived at the unit.

Although calm and smiling on the outside, he is clearly nervous, like many who come here.

“It’s the bravest thing they’ll ever do – take that step forward and say ‘I need help – please help me,'” said Clare Hilton, director of the service. .

Before the newcomer even leaves the reception, he must be breathalysed.

“It sometimes seems harsh,” adds Clare. “They literally walked in… but the sooner we start monitoring, the sooner we can give them the drugs to minimize withdrawals. »

Neighborhood Manager Clare Hilton

Clare Hilton is Service Manager

The Chapman-Barker unit is one of seven such centers in the UK.

For many patients who come here from the north of England and even further afield, it is their best hope of beating their addiction.

Patients generally spend two weeks there – sometimes more – being cared for by a team of clinicians with various specialties.

They will not only supervise alcohol withdrawal, but also offer targeted psychosocial therapies to try to determine what is driving their addiction.

After undergoing a breathalyzer test, the newcomer walks around the unit and leads to his room.

He will now undergo a complete medical examination, then the medication can begin.

“It’s their time,” Clare said. “You never have that time to take care of yourself…I tell them, ‘Use it. Soak up all we have to offer.’ »

The new patient

A patient, whom we’ll call Gary, speaks to me a few hours after arriving, just as his initial medical examination ends.

Brilliant and enthusiastic, he looks like a determined man.

“I’ve been addicted to alcohol for 30 years,” he tells me. “And now that I’m here, I’m not going to throw it away.

“No pain, no gain. When I leave here in two weeks, there will be no more alcohol. That’s all “.

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Gary tells me he spent months waiting for funding to be approved for his stay here.

“Basically it was do or die – I was dying. I’ll be 60 in December and I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to die or am I going to be lucky for another 10 years?’

“I prefer to have another 10 years and a chance of happiness. »

The addiction specialist

Dr Stephen Kaar

Dr. Kaar says addictions are largely caused by life circumstances and events

Dr. Stephen Kaar is one of two consultants on the unit who specializes in the psychology of addiction and the practical aspects of withdrawal from a variety of substances.

Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances to wean off of.

If done incorrectly, it can be life-threatening due to the chemical imbalances that long-term alcohol abuse creates in the brain.

“In very severe addiction, people can get up to 50% of their calories from alcohol,” he says.

“So if you’re getting 50% of your calories just from this drink, which has no nutritional value, but gives you calories so your body can keep functioning, you’re neglecting all the other nutrients you need. . »

A particularly important nutrient is vitamin B1 or thiamin, which protects brain cells.

New arrivals are often given an intravenous infusion of thiamin and other vitamins.

They are also given drugs to calm the brain, as the sudden elimination of alcohol can overstimulate the brain and cause seizures.

“The highest risk of seizures is during the first two days,” says Dr. Kaar.

“Over the next three to four days there is a high risk of developing something called Delirium Tremens where people can get very confused, very agitated, hallucinate. »

Patients who suffer from it need constant individual monitoring.

By the end of the first week, the worst withdrawal symptoms have usually passed.

At this point, the team focuses more on psychological therapies and treatments.

Dr. Kaar says addictions are largely caused by life circumstances and events.

“A lot of it is environment and luck, basically. It’s where you were born and the kind of stuff life threw at you. »

The recovering patient


Tony started drinking as a teenager while working as a bricklayer

Tony remembers being told “stop drinking or I die – it’s as simple as that”.

In the small room he has occupied for a week and a half, he recounts his 40-year fight against alcohol.

It all started in his late teens when he was working as a bricklayer.

Tony says that in the 1980s there was a real drinking culture after work.

“I would stay in there for two hours and drink maybe four or five pints and go home,” he adds, “but then I started drinking at home too. »

Tony tells me he was careful not to let alcohol affect his work, which he loved.

But a few years ago, back problems forced him to give up work. His alcohol consumption increased considerably.

“I was very depressed because I liked the job… I ended up at home and that’s when I started drinking alcohol.

Like many people, Tony says his drinking hasn’t been helped by the Covid lockdowns.

And then, last fall, Tony’s son committed suicide after many years of battling depression.

“When he died…I just wanted to drink. And I did,” Tony recalled.


Once the immediate shock passed, however, Tony says he started to really examine his own life.

“It made me think, ‘I really need to stop drinking now because I need to be strong for my family and for myself. »

Tony tells me about his grandchildren, whom he clearly adores.

On the chest of drawers is a handmade card by her granddaughter that reads, “You help me be strong as a tree.”

Tony shows me the poetry he writes to keep his mind occupied, including poems in memory of his son.

He tells me he hasn’t had a drink in 11 days, his longest sobriety in four decades.

Tony’s eyes fill up.

“It’s really a miracle because I never thought I could feel like this,” he says.

“I feel like I found myself and I was Tony for so long.

“And now I’m Tony – but I don’t drink anymore. »

The former patient


Levi says recovery from alcoholism ‘is a lifelong thing’

Levi left the Chapman Barker unit in the spring of 2021.

“It was difficult because once you quit alcohol you have to deal with your emotions and it’s hard to do that without drinking,” he tells me.

“It’s about finding ways to manage those emotions and manage the cravings. It’s been a long trip, but I’m getting there. »

After leaving the unit, Levi spent three months in a rehabilitation center run by the Thomas charity.

He is now part of the charity’s outreach programme, which organizes regular activities and meetings for people recovering from addiction.

“You think you can do it on your own, but you can’t,” Levi tells me. “You need this support around you.

“Recovery is a lifelong thing. I didn’t become an alcoholic overnight and I’m not going to recover overnight. »

Both at the unit and at the charity, group activities and therapy are seen as an important part of breaking the addiction pattern.

Regular therapy groups, often led by former patients, are vitally important.

One day, Levi hopes to help organize the sessions himself.

“If it hadn’t been for the Chapman-Barker unit, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now,” he thought to himself, describing the unit as “incredible”.

“My future is looking good – it looks really positive.

“It helped me a lot to be in rehab and to be here, so hopefully one day I can do that and give back. »

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Related Internet Links

  • Chapman Barker Unit

  • Dependency – NHS

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Related Topics

  • Alcohol
  • Alcoholism
  • Manchester
  • Addiction
  • coronavirus pandemic

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