Leap of faith in addicts makes a huge difference

TWO workers are pottering around the well-tended front garden of Malta House in Stockbridge, clearing away the first fall of the autumn leaves, dead-heading flowers and trimming the grassy edges.

It's a time of change, as one season slowly gives way to the next and the lush green leaves of summer fade to warm browns, reds and ambers.

Through the imposing property's large black doors and upstairs is Dr David McCartney's office, where the late summer sun streams through huge windows overlooking the front lawn and its rapidly-changing fauna.

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Life for his patients is changing too. For this peaceful corner of Stockbridge is where a lucky few caught in the fall-out of Scotland's woeful love affair with booze and drugs come to turn their lives around.

Lucky is what they are, because Lothians and Edinburgh Abstinence Programme, launched two years ago as a radical pilot scheme aimed at delivering addicts from a downward spiral of unsuccessful detoxes and persistent tumbles off the wagon, is delivering a success rate well above those of many other rehabilitation services.

Six out of ten of Dr McCartney's patients walk back out of those black doors with lives rebuilt, addictions under control and the prospect of a better life.

It's a success achieved through a unique 'joined-up' programme of community-based rehabilitation and long-term support which breaks the cycle of addiction by providing patients with the security of a home and access to education or a job along with the knowledge that Malta House's door is open to them whenever they need it.

It could be one remedy to the horrific human toll caused by Scotland's mounting booze and drugs love affair.

Yet it might never have happened if Dr McCartney, 49, hadn't successfully tackled and beaten his own nightmare of addictions.

"Addiction is a thief," the doctor declares, going on to confess to alcohol problems of his own that catapulted him from hardworking family GP in Glasgow to desperate addict. He also knows the hell of drug addiction – at one point he became hooked on heroin too.

"Addiction robs us of so much, it takes away homes, relationships, jobs, everything that's really important," he continues. "It's a thief that steals away your life.

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"I was a social drinker and then it became more intense. Just like a lot of us, it creeps up and you don't see it coming.

"I was less and less able to manage things that people who don't have alcohol problems are. My life became too difficult and messy until it was only about drinking."

His medical background gave him access to help and support unlike anything he could have received at the time on the NHS. And he drew on those experiences to develop the LEAP blueprint.

The service, the first of its kind in Scotland, was launched two years ago this weekend.

Funded by 800,000 of Scottish Government cash and run by NHS Lothian along with drug and alcohol action teams, LEAP patients are placed in a residential centre at the heart of the community – a key element of their treatment involves simply learning to walk past temptations.

Twenty addicts at a time go through a three-month intensive programme of detoxification and rehabilitation which costs around 500 per week per patient. Typical privately-run residential units can charge tens of thousands.

Six out of ten go on to 'graduate', giving them a route to support from the council and other agencies, which ensures they have somewhere to live and access to education, training or work.

Certainly, LEAP's second anniversary this weekend has brought clearer indications than ever that it seems to be working for many. Its 60 per cent success rate compares with 40 to 50 per cent who go through similar privately-run rehab programmes.

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Of LEAP's first-year 'graduates' – 85 in total – 65 per cent are still sober or drug-free. Many have gone on to further education or training, some have entered university. "Some we couldn't contact but we can't assume they have relapsed," says Dr McCartney.

"Even if they have, we would still expect them to show a range of improvements in behaviour – whether it's in falling incidents of crime, improved health or better relationship with their family.

"People don't exist in isolation," the doctor adds. "This is all about trying to integrate what patients need into one single service. They have other needs apart from stopping drinking or drugs, they need homes, jobs and support."

Dr McCartney's achievements in launching LEAP were recognised when he received a prestigious honour from The Royal Society of Arts.

Beating his own addictions dramatically changed his life. Now, as LEAP prepares for a third year and the possibility that his unique model for addiction care will be replicated elsewhere, it seems Dr McCartney's experiences are changing many other lives too.

"When I was drinking, my life got smaller and smaller," he recalls. "Most clear to me was the death of the spirit inside of me, that thing that gave me the passion and enthusiasm and joy just got quieter and quieter.

"It was like a gas flame being turned down till it was nearly out.

"Now I have got the passion and the enthusiasm back again."

LEAP patients are referred to the service via GPs and drink and drug support agencies. Go to www.nhslothian.scot.nhs.uk/ourservices/leap