THE boss of a drug and alcohol charity has pointed the finger at underfunding in light of a spike in drug-related deaths in the county.

Leigh Williams, CEO of Cumbria Alcohol and Drug Advisory Service (CADAS), said she was not surprised to hear that 142 people had died of drug poisoning in 2016-18 in Cumbria.

The number of this type of deaths has increased from 2014-16, when 113 deaths were registered.

Ms Williams said: "I'm not shocked by these figures, when you cut the funding to mental health services and statuary drug and alcohol services things aren't going to improve.

"Drug and alcohol services aren't a mandatory Government spend, we're fortunate enough in Cumbria that the county council's public health team decided to put money into it and I'm pleased about that. However the money given to Unity [Alcohol and Drug Recovery Service] has been cut."

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that 23 deaths due to drug poisoning were registered in Allerdale in 2016-18 compared to 18 in 2014-16. Numbers increased in Carlisle, which registered 39 deaths due to drug poisoning in 2016-18, 10 more than the previous two years. And in Copeland deaths more than doubled, rising from 10 to 21.

Deaths are also on the rise in Barrow, which registered 30 deaths in 2016-18, compared to 22 in the previous two years. However Eden and South Lakeland have seen a decrease, from 13 to 10 and from 21 to 19, respectively.

There were 4,359 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2018, the highest number and the highest annual increase (16%) since records began in 1993.

Ms Williams believes that more prevention work should be done with young people, however schools struggling with bigger class sizes and underfunding means less of this type of work is done.

She said: "Experimenting is a normal part of adolescence, taking risks is part of it and drug and alcohol are easily available. Funding cuts means you're reducing the great quality input of youth workers and teachers."

She added poor mental health and lack of education can lead young people to develop an addictive behaviour as a coping mechanism.

Stacey Makin, Operational Manager for Unity, said: "There is always more that can be done in relation to tackling drug-related deaths and we work hard to reduce drug use in general in our communities and ensure people have access to the appropriate treatment and harm reduction services.

"Our experience of dealing with complex cases means we can always find a solution to minimise the harm certain lifestyles attract.

"We work closely with service providers, representing the NHS and voluntary sectors, to share best practice on identifying those people most at risk and the evidence-based interventions that can be applied to reduce the number of unnecessary deaths.

"People living with addiction can be in a very vulnerable situation, but we are here to help keep people safe and supported to have a future free from addiction."

Between 2017 and 2018, there were increases in the number of deaths involving a wide range of substances, though opiates, such as heroin and morphine, continued to be the most frequently mentioned type of drug.

Deaths involving cocaine doubled between 2015 and 2018 to their highest ever level, while the numbers involving new psychoactive substances (NPS) returned to their previous levels after halving in 2017.

More than half of all drug poisoning deaths involve more than one drug and sometimes also alcohol, and it is often not possible to tell which substance was primarily responsible for the death.

Ms Williams said she was particularly concerned about the spike in cocaine use, especially used alongside alcohol.

She said: "In this area you have many adults with poor mental health and they're using substances to cope. Taking cocaine with alcohol actually increases the chance of overdosing and there's an element of toxicity which can really impact on the liver."

The National Crime Agency reports that purity levels for cocaine are at historically high levels.

Ms Williams said alcohol was used alongside cocaine to numb its stronger effect.

She added she was concerned when she heard that Mind in West Cumbria was to close at the end of the month.

She said: "It's a huge concern because I think there's a lot of good work happening about removing the stigma around mental health and I'm disappointed about the closure of these services.

"The mentally healthier people are, the less problems with drugs we would see."

She said it was common for people to use illegal drugs or medication that had not been prescribed to them to cope with anxiety, however this could lead to addictive behaviour.

The drug she is most concerned about that is used by young people is Nitrous Oxide, also known as laughing gas.

Ms Williams believes poor mental health, availability of drugs and stigma around drug use are the main issues when it comes to drug and alcohol use.

She said: "People still think it's embarrassing and unfortunately people come to us a little bit too late because of this. We feel lucky when we're able to catch somebody and make significant change for them. We need to continue to remove the stigma and encourage people to recognise if they have a problem to seek help."

Anyone who is concerned about drug and alcohol use can contact CADAS on 0300 111 4002.

Ms Makin said: "Unity offer help and support for people who are affected by drug use. We do not have a waiting list, so please get in touch.

"Unity is part of Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, who have been rated as ‘Outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission for substance misuse services. We urge anyone, who has been affected by substance misuse to contact us. 01900 270010 Workington Office, 01946 350020 Whitehaven Office. Or email us on:"

Anyone concerned for their mental health can call the Samaritans on 116 123.