Teenagers addicted to drugs and alcohol the 'hidden victims' of lockdown

Outside The Wire Veteran support session, run by veterans for veterans at the Matthew Project

Outside The Wire Veteran support session, run by veterans for veterans at the Matthew Project - Credit: The Matthew Project

The new chair of a Norfolk substance abuse charity has revealed the extent to which lockdown has been "absolutely terrible" for young people suffering from addiction - and forced many of them into relapse.

Liz Wiggins, a change coach for the NHS who became the new chair of The Matthew Project two months ago, has spoken out about the need to rehabilitate the pandemic's "hidden victims" moving forward. 

The charity works to empower 1,200 veterans, parents and young people aged 16-26 impacted by drug and alcohol addiction across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. In Norwich, it has its own recovery hub called Next Steps.

Liz Wiggins, the new chair of The Matthew Project, assumed the role 2 months ago

Liz Wiggins, the new chair of The Matthew Project, assumed the role 2 months ago - Credit: The Matthew Project

During the first lockdown, when Matthew Project services were moved online, Ms Wiggins explained that isolation, a lack of routine and the need to "stay home" hit vulnerable young people and their parents especially hard.

Some programmes, such as the Unity Service for substance abusers under 19 and their parents, saw a 30pc reduction in beneficiary numbers from the year before as a consequence.

"We're now playing catch-up with an ever-shrinking funding stream", she explained, "but we need people's support more than ever.

"The previous chair, Paul Hoey, told me just before I took this job that it's not about helping people on the margins of society, but those who have fallen off the page. I thought that was such a powerful metaphor.

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"Covid has been so difficult for the people we help. Kids have been stuck in their rooms and made to just sit there idly. It's been absolutely terrible. They're becoming addicted to online pornography, gambling and alcohol as young as 14. It's awful. They're some of the hidden victims in all of this.

"In the first lockdown we stopped running our workshops because at that point the pandemic was an unknown entity and we had to think about protecting staff.

"But by the next lockdown we were acutely aware of its devastating impact and the fact that so many people we help had relapsed. We ended up staying open throughout the second and third shutdown, operating with PPE, lateral flow testing and social distancing."

Explaining why young people fall into addiction in the first place, Ms Wiggins said: "They may have a really bad family situation and turn to escapism to numb the pain.

"There are also people into petty thieving who become a target for the insidious phenomenon that is County Lines.

"We're doing a pilot project with Norfolk Police on the county lines issue in an effort to empower young people to say no, because once you become part of that underworld it's hard to get out."

She said that young people often find that County Lines drug "packages" they have been delivered are then deliberately stolen - thereby indebting that person to an organised crime gang.

Young girls are also told to attend a location where they are then forced into sex work.

"Our aim is to show those young people they are worth more than that", Ms Wiggins said.

She added: "Young people are the ones losing all the jobs and feeling they have no future. It's an excruciating time for them. Many feel they've got no other option."

Ms Wiggins said she took on the voluntary role after being contacted by someone in the charity for recommendations of a suitable candidate.

She said: "I got thinking that maybe I fit the bill."

Having already known about substance abuse from a friend who runs drug workshops in London, Ms Wiggins said she was shocked to discover the impact substance abuse was having outside of London.

She said: "I never knew any of it happened to this extent in Norfolk.

"I wanted to be involved because, as hackneyed as it sounds, I really want to make a difference."

You can donate to the Matthew Project at: totalgiving.co.uk/donate/the-matthew-project

You can get tickets for the Bishop's Garden fundraising event here: matthewproject.org/bishops-gardens-open-day

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