Elaine Bradley holds a weekly lunch club at Southend Treatment and Recovery Service.

 Elaine Bradley holds a weekly lunch club at Southend Treatment and Recovery Service. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Elaine Bradley knows more than most the heartache of addiction. Having lost her husband through alcoholism, she nearly drank herself to death too.

Now, six years sober, Bradley helps others battle addiction in a rather unique way – by dishing them up chicken.

The 61-year-old widow is one of an army of volunteers at Southend Treatment and Recovery Service (Stars), which caters for hundreds of the town’s drug addicts.

Her Thursday lunch club – dubbed “Elainedo’s” because the chicken is donated by the local Nando’s restaurant – provides a social hub where people can talk about their issues and support each other.

The seaside town needs it now more than ever. It was rocked this week by a spate of class A drug deaths – six in just three days within a 6-mile radius – prompting urgent warnings about the use of illegal substances.

On Friday, Essex police said officers were working “around the clock” to establish which substance was responsible, but cautioned that testing was “complex and may take some time”. Among those who died was 20-year-old Cian Daly, described by his family as “loving” and a “free spirit”.

Cian Daly.
 Cian Daly. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

“It’s sad, but what can you do? The help is here if they want it,” says Bradley, reflecting on the deaths.

Bradley, who has also volunteered running the charity’s peer-mentoring group meetings, was born and bred in Southend. “You’ve got to talk to each other. They all sit and chat about this, that and the other and they open up a bit more.”

Artwork and inspirational messages created by patients adorn the walls of the “recovery cafe”, and a memorial book in the corner serves as a reminder of the deadly consequences of substance misuse. Bradley points to her husband’s name in the pages. “It was his own fault, he didn’t take any notice of me so there you go,” she says of his death 11 years ago.

Boxes of cheesecakes are piled on the counter, donated the previous evening by a bakery worker who knew someone who had been helped by the charity. “It’s a nice feel when you walk in here, although it’s blooming hot,” says Bradley as a batch of chicken cooks in the ovens behind her. “You know everyone by first names and they all know us. They know that they can trust us.”

Stars, which is commissioned by Southend-on-Sea borough council, helped treat 661 people for substance misuse in the 12 months to June, including 76 who completed programmes successfully and are now drug-free.

Deaths from drug misuse in Southend are slightly higher than the national average, according to statistics from Public Health England. Between 2015-17, there were 4.8 deaths from drug misuse per 100,000 in the town, compared with a rate of 4.3 in England.

The Tory MP Sir David Amess, who represents Southend West where two of the deaths are thought to have occurred, has written to the newly appointed home secretary, Priti Patel, and is calling on Essex police to provide answers.

“It’s absolutely horrendous, it’s heartbreaking for all those involved. I want to know whether they [the police] can shed any light on this,” he says.

Dr Ahmad Muhamed, a specialist in addiction psychiatry who is the clinical lead at Stars – which is run by the national charity Change Grow Live, says he treats people with addictions to substances including heroin, crack cocaine, cannabis and alcohol.

Dr Ahmad Muhamed.
 Dr Ahmad Muhamed. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Patients are prescribed substance substitutes, such as methadone, and gradually tapered off their drug use in a process that sometimes takes months but can often drag on for years, he says.

“It varies from one patient to another because you have to take into account a lot of factors: their physical health, their mental health, their socioeconomic status,” he said. “Even if they have been on it for years, the end goal is for them to come off it.”

Two-thirds of those seeking the centre’s help for drug addictions are hooked on opiates. Muhamed explains the importance of providing patients with the drug naloxone, which they are also trained to inject. “Naloxone is an opiate antagonist – it’s given to anybody who sadly suffers accidentally from an opiate overdose,” he says.

The main shopping precinct in Southend.
 The main shopping precinct in Southend. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Shahida Akram, who has been the service manager at Stars for two years but has worked there for twice that time, says the number of drug deaths in the past week is unprecedented.

The deaths all happened in people’s homes, Essex police have said. Asked about the misconception that drug addicts are mainly found among the homeless population, Akram says rough sleepers account for “a very small statistic”, adding: “We get people from all walks of life. There isn’t one type of substance that’s related to one type of person, it’s just a complete mixture.”

Back in the cafe, Bradley reflects on the mounting drug problem facing the town as a queue forms for her freshly served chicken. “To be honest, I think Southend needs a lot more of these places because the work we do here, I think, is amazing.”