Our Distressing Level of Alcohol Deaths is Adding to Scotland’s Shame

A further 1,245 families lost a loved one through alcohol last year, according to new alcohol-specific death statistics released today.

Over 1,000 people have died through alcohol in every single year but one of the past twenty years – a devastating loss of life for Scotland’s families and communities.

At Scottish Families we hear every day about distressing levels of alcohol-related risk and harm affecting whole families – children, young people, and adults. This does not attract the same political or media attention as drug-related risk and harm, but it is no less damaging to families.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made a bad situation worse through increasing levels of alcohol consumption amongst those at most risk, alongside reduced access to the treatment, care and support people so desperately need.

During the pandemic, our Helpline saw a rapid increase in demand for support from families, and from individuals concerned about their own drinking. This included people who were already receiving support from treatment services but were unable to contact them, as well as people who were newly concerned about their own drinking.

Almost two and a half years on, and we have seen no return to the pre-pandemic picture. Over the past year (2021-22) we averaged 100 additional Helpline contacts each month, compared to before the pandemic (2019-20). Alcohol continues to be the top concern amongst people contacting the Helpline, and we are still constantly hearing about the difficulties individuals and families face trying to access the life-saving treatment, support and care they need.

Scottish Families is responding to the latest alcohol specific death statistics by expanding its existing ‘Holding On’ one to one support service to support family members at high risk of alcohol-related harm and death. This service was originally set up to offer intensive support to families affected by drugs only, however the risk of harm and death around alcohol is just as high and requires an equally intensive and proactive response.

Justina Murray, CEO of Scottish Families, said:

“With today’s announcement of another devastating death toll through alcohol, it is time to recognise that alcohol is harming our families and communities just as much as drugs in Scotland. Alcohol harm is just as life-threatening. Families are living every day with the fear and trauma that their loved one may die through alcohol. Yet we are not seeing anything like the level of investment and service improvement that we need to reduce the risk of harm and death. Our distressing level of alcohol deaths is adding to Scotland’s shame.”

Karen, a family member supported by Scottish Families, described what life is like for families:

“Living with someone addicted to alcohol is like being blindfolded on a rollercoaster. I never liked rollercoasters, but this one is far worse than the fairground type and lasts not minutes but years. You find yourself in a constant state of suspense, waiting for the next nauseating plunge into despair and chaos as your loved one goes through detox, becomes the real person you know and love, and then relapses and becomes a devious liar who will do anything to get his next bottle of whisky. Visits to A&E, going through detox, counselling, weeks of being unable to eat and reaching death’s door and lucky to make it through the night, all of these seem to end up in a bottle of whisky for him and shredded nerves for me. It all reminds me of watching someone on a wooden raft going down the Colorado River, calm sailing until he reached the ferocious rapids in the Grand Canyon where he’s tossed mercilessly from one stretch of churning white water to another, helplessly crashing into jagged rocks that threaten to tear him to pieces.”

Mary, another family member supported by Scottish Families, shared a series of texts with her family support worker, Colin, between April to July this year, starkly illustrating how close her son has repeatedly come to becoming one of today’s alcohol death statistics:

April 12th – Hi Colin, things not good here, James still with me, in bed all day, his mood is very low, I have messaged his worker today but not hopeful of any help. I’m ok, doing my stuff.

May 1st – James is in the Royal [Infirmary], very unwell, pancreatitis and liver problems. I’ll see you in the morning.

May 8th – Hi Colin, James is seriously ill in ICU, pancreatitis, kidney failure, liver issues, not good, I’m worried sick. I might join you in the morning, it’s one minute at a time.

May 13th – Thanks Colin, just so upset about James, he’s in a lot of pain and it’s going to be a long journey for him. I feel so guilty that I could have done more to help him stop instead I just kept enabling him.

May 17th – Hi Colin, sorry for not getting back to you, James had a setback yesterday, an internal bleed but luckily being in ICU it was picked up quickly and he had an emergency procedure. Much better today but he has a long way to go. I’m hoping to zoom tomorrow.

May 25th – Hi Colin, glad to say that James got out of ICU on Saturday and is doing well, he’s in the ward which is enhanced recovery, he’s off all the drips and is eating and getting naso-gastric food. His mood was a bit tearful today, his usual anxiety. Hope you’re having a nice break. I hope to be there on Friday.

July 26th – Hi Colin, things not good with James, he’s still at his flat and was coming here today but same old story, fell asleep. I have spoken to him and told him what he needs to do, he’s not admitting that he’s been drinking but I feel really uneasy. It’s up to him but very upsetting. The addiction team have been supportive at times but not always available when needed, a phone call a week not enough, James has been detoxed a few times but not much after care.

July 29th – James very bad as suspected, I have just given him £500 for debts, his mental health is very bad, saying that his life is ended, I’m totally distraught. Keep saying I’m not doing this again but there you go! I just wish that I didn’t feel sorry for him but he’s really sick.

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