While fans have been eagerly exchanging their theories on the latest potential “bent copper”, there’s a subplot emerging that deserves more of our attention: Steve Arnott’s painkiller addiction.
The detective sergeant was shown visiting two pharmacies back-to-back. The camera then panned to show what he’d bought, displaying over-the-counter ibuprofen, plus codeine. A later shot showed him at home, opening a cupboard stockpiled with the drugs, before washing down several tablets with a beer.
The short but stark scenes are part of a storyline that’s been carefully developed over three series. Longtime viewers will remember Steve was thrown down the stairs in season four, then began to rely on prescription painkillers to get through a day’s work in season five. Now, in season six, he’s showing signs of opioid addiction – a growing problem in the UK.
“Broadcasting a lead character struggling with prescription drug addiction in a primetime TV show is incredible to see, as we truly believe that more people suffer with this addiction in the UK than anyone could ever imagine,” Nuno Albuquerque, head of treatment for the UK addiction treatment group UKAT, tells HuffPost UK.
“Hopefully it will allow people to recognise their own unhealthy relationship with prescribed drugs, and encourage people to ask for help in exploring alternative pain treatment programmes.”
Opioid painkillers, which come from the same family as heroin, work by stopping pain signals from travelling along the nerves to the brain. Although they’re designed to treat pain, users sometimes report feelings of euphoria or an easing of anxiety, which contributes to the drugs’ addictiveness.
Codeine is one of the most frequently prescribed or purchased over-the-counter opioids and is marketed as a painkiller for everything from migraines to period pain. While strong codeine is only available on prescription, lower strength codeine is available over-the-counter, mixed with paracetamol (co-codamol), with aspirin (co-codaprin) or with ibuprofen.
In 2018, a study led by University College London found the number of opioid drugs being prescribed by doctors to patients in England has been steadily rising since 2010 and notably, “prescriptions of codeine increased faster than all other opioids”. Data from UKAT also identified a 45% rise in admissions for codeine addiction from 2015 to 2018.
A 2019 review by Public Health England found more than half a million people in England have taken prescribed opioid painkillers for three years or more, despite the fact they’re only recommended for short-term use, due to being highly addictive.
“Prescription drug addiction is as real an addiction and as dangerous an addiction as heroin,” says Albuquerque. “Just because they have legitimate medical purposes, does not mean they aren’t dangerous when misused.
“Without a doubt, prescription drug addiction is the most hidden addiction in the UK. We would confidently suggest that everyone knows at least one person with a dependency to prescribed drugs.”
HuffPost UK has previously spoken to people who developed codeine addictions following a prescription, then turned to a cocktail of over-the-counter drugs when their prescriptions ended.
Mike, 37, from Manchester, was prescribed codeine for a broken hand in 2008, but resorted to a dangerous mix of over-the-counter products when his supply dried up. “Everything changed, I would be going to watch football, hanging out with mates, and then suddenly I just stopped doing everything,” he told us.
“It killed my sex drive, amongst killing all interests. Even my hygiene dropped. I was at rock bottom, I was having suicidal tendencies and I thought: something’s got to give, I have to change this.”
The Line Of Duty storyline appears to reflect this common pattern from prescription to over-the-counter misuse. While Steve’s reliance on the painkillers has developed across three series, the time it takes for someone to develop an opioid addiction can vary, says Albuquerque.
“For some, the feelings of euphoria can be so enjoyable that after just a few days of regular exposure their brain chemicals have been altered to encourage more consumption,” he says.
“For others, the addiction can take hold over a prolonged period of time. Painkillers only pause pain, they’re a sticking plaster to a deeper problem. The problem arises when no other treatment for the pain is provided. This is when gradual addiction begins to manifest, because the person suffering hasn’t been provided with any alternative.”
Signs of prescription drug addiction:
- Displaying erratic behaviour when running out of painkillers
- A change in a person’s emotional state
- A tendency to shop online for prescription drugs
- Regular complaints about medical conditions that justify drug use
- A gradual change in school or work performance
- Disinterest in personal appearance
- Withdrawal symptoms, include nervous tremors, anxiety, sleep disorders, vomiting and diarrhoea.
If Steve’s story has resonated with you, Albuquerque stresses the importance of seeking professional help for prescription or over-the-counter drug addiction.
“Nobody should go ‘cold turkey’ from their prescription medication without discussing their wishes with their GP,” he says. “It must be a tapered process as simply stopping taking these drugs can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms.”
Further information and 24/7 confidential support with prescription drug addiction can be found on UKAT’s website. For mental health support, see a list of charity websites and helplines below.
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).