The rate of drug poisoning deaths in England and Wales has increased each year in the past decade. You could be forgiven for thinking, then, that drug poisoning deaths in Scotland have also increased. Well, in fact, the figure has fallen for the first time in eight years. Why, then, does Scottish Drugs Policy Minister, Angela Constance, maintain that the number of deaths is “unacceptable”?
Although the number of drug deaths has reduced for the first time in eight years, the Scottish drug death rate remains more than three times higher than that of any other country in Europe. The government has pledged to spend £250 million to tackle the situation.
This has split opinion among the public, most of whom believe that the Scottish government should have acted sooner in order to treat those who struggle with addiction. The latest statistics could signal a change, but it is clear that Scotland has a severe drug problem that needs addressing.
Scotland Has the Highest Drug Death Rate in Europe
According to a technical report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in 2021, Scotland’s drug-induced mortality rate among adults (about 280 per million) was almost 13 times higher than the average rate in Europe.
Even though the National Records for Scotland (NRS) reports that the country has most recently seen a small reduction in drug-related deaths (9 fewer), it continues to have the highest drug death rate on the continent.
The question arises, why is Scotland’s drug death rate so incredibly high? When categorising the rate by age, the most obvious increase and highest peaks of drug misuse death rates appear in two groups: those aged 35-44, and those aged 45-54.
From this, you might estimate that Scotland’s drug problem is linked to the pressures of living a life in poverty or unemployment. However, other statistics show that many countries in Europe have higher rates of poverty and unemployment alongside much lower drug death rates. This makes Scotland’s drug problem a tricky one to explain.
For example, Scotland has a lower persistent poverty rate (10%) than the average persistent poverty rate in Europe (11.3%). In addition, as of 2022, the Scottish unemployment rate (3.2%) was almost half that of the rest of the EU (6.0%). This makes the country’s drug death problem a complicated one to address.
How Is the Government Responding?
The Scottish government pledged to spend an extra £250 million to tackle the huge volume of drug-related deaths that the country has experienced. The government will spend the money over five years, handing it out to rehabilitation services – places where individuals suffering with substance use disorders go and stay in order to get treatments – and local alcohol and drug partnerships.
The year that this spending was put into place, from 2021/2022, Scottish drug deaths saw a decline. For the first time in eight years, the country – which has the highest drug death rates in Europe – was no longer on the road to ruin. The drop in drug poisoning deaths, while not being statistically significant, may signify a turn in the tide.
While some may take this as positive news, it remains “unacceptable”, according to Scotland’s Drugs Policy Minister, Angela Constance. Stating that the latest statistics bring “yet more heartbreaking reading”, Constance maintains that work must and will proceed “at pace” to address the epidemic.
Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that the extra cash will “do more to tackle, head on, the stigma associated with drug use”, while also encouraging more people to seek help with their drug abuse problems. The new figures highlight that 70% of drug deaths were male.
In order to get to the root of the problem, it appears that the stigma around drug use needs to be broken. Aiding men and those of other genders to feel free to admit to family members and health professionals that they are struggling with addiction can only encourage individuals to seek treatment.
Ms. Sturgeon’s words will be being listened to by those who have experienced the destructive powers of drug addiction. It remains to be seen if her words are being put into action, and if the government is able to continue the downward trend in drug-related deaths.
Does Breaking the Stigma Actually Help?
Drug addiction treatment is becoming not only more effective, but also more accessible. This is true, not only for Scotland, but also the UK, Europe, and around the world. As addiction is being increasingly understood by health professionals and governments, the treatment of those who struggle with substance use disorders is becoming more compassionate, and more effective as a result.
Residential treatment for drug addiction remains the most effective form of rehabilitation, but other treatment options exist including outpatient services and home detox services.
As the stigma of addiction is slowly becoming eroded, being open about having a drug addiction and seeking help for it, is seen less and less of an admission of guilt. Victims of a disease such as substance use disorders are as deserving of healthcare, just as much as someone with a broken arm. As more people seek help, statistics of successful rehabilitation increase, and treatment becomes more effective, leading to a lower drug death rate.
Lowering drug death rates is also aided by advancements in science, which has been behind the dramatic improvement of drug addiction treatment over the past few decades. New evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), have been providing more and more positive results in combating behaviours that reinforce patterns of addiction.
The therapy involves interrupting negative thinking patterns, enabling an individual to alter their behaviours and feelings associated with those thoughts. This helps the individual to cope with stress and make healthier lifestyle choices in the future.
Breaking the stigma behind addiction can clearly enable individuals to seek such treatment. This could, in turn, aid the Scottish government in bringing down their drug death rate to a point where it is no longer destroying so many people’s lives.