Rising Alcohol Deaths Reflect Lockdown Pressures on Families

The announcement today that a further 1,190 people in Scotland have died through alcohol-specific causes in 2020 reflects another year of heartbreak for families affected by alcohol harm.

Sadly these figures come as little surprise to Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, with our national Helpline trends around alcohol during the COVID pandemic showing an escalating picture of risk, harm and service failure.

Between April 2020 and March 2021 (the pandemic year), the Scottish Families Helpline was contacted by people concerned about alcohol harm from every single one of Scotland’s 29 Alcohol and Drug Partnership areas – covering urban, rural and island communities, and both deprived and affluent communities.

Due to the pressures of the pandemic, our overall Helpline contacts increased by 66% from the previous year. However this rose to an 84% increase from people concerned specifically about alcohol use (over four-fifths).

We saw a faster rise in contacts from those concerned about their own alcohol use than from those concerned about someone else:

  • Almost two and half times more people contacted us in 2020-21 to talk about their own alcohol use, than during the previous year (from 130 to 304 contacts).
  • Just over one and three quarters more family members and friends contacted us to talk about their concerns about a loved one’s alcohol use (from 328 to 596 contacts).
  • Interestingly there was a slight drop in referrals from others (e.g. other professionals and services), despite increased need.

The stories shared by individuals and families contacting our Helpline point to:

  • Increased alcohol use by people of all ages during lockdown, including those on furlough and home working;
  • Family members becoming more aware of their loved one’s drinking with everyone at home together;
  • Increased levels of violence and aggression in the home, including family members feeling coerced to buy alcohol;
  • Chaotic living situations, including job loss, homelessness, relapse and mental health concerns (including suicide attempts);
  • Life-threatening medical emergencies caused by sudden alcohol withdrawal, with 70% of concerns about withdrawal during lockdown relating specifically to alcohol withdrawal;
  • Lack of access to alcohol treatment services – both for those already in treatment and those who are seeking help for the first time;
  • Limited treatment options or choice for those who did reach support, with individuals’ and families’ alcohol concerns frequently dismissed and downplayed by services, and poor or limited harm reduction advice;
  • In just 1 in 10 cases (10%), the individual whose drinking was causing concern was fully engaged with a treatment provider. A further 2 in 10 (21%) were described as having ‘intermittent’ engagement.

A snapshot of some real scenarios from our Helpline for support included:

  • A woman from Fife is concerned about her partner who had “been on a bender” since being furloughed. He had not paid his rent, so the landlord has locked the doors and left his property in the hallway. He keeps phoning her looking for money and is living with different friends each night.
  • A woman from Dundee is concerned about her sister who has tried to take her life three times during lockdown. She has been hospitalised twice and her alcohol use is increasing. She was in withdrawals and attempted to access support, but she can’t get a reply from her local service.
  • A woman from Grampian is concerned about her partner who has relapsed. When she challenges his drinking he has been violent. She is looking for support in how to leave with their children but she has no income and nowhere to go.
  • A young woman from Glasgow is concerned about her brother’s drinking and drug use. He has tried to engage with his GP on numerous occasions and been offered no support other than anti-depressants. The family is looking for somewhere to send him for treatment as he can no longer live in the family home due to stress. Every service they have tried to contact offered no support.

Justina Murray, CEO of Scottish Families, said:

“While Scotland continues its COVID recovery journey, it is clear that life will not get back to normal any time soon for thousands of families affected by alcohol harm. A heart-breaking total of 1,190 families lost a loved one to alcohol last year – every one of those a preventable death. Thousands more are struggling to recover from the impact of months of lockdown.

Since March 2020 our Helpline has been inundated with calls from individuals concerned about their own drinking during lockdown, and from those concerned about a loved one’s alcohol use. A common theme has been how impossible it is to reach alcohol treatment and support when you need it, with phones ringing out, messages not returned, and few options offered when you do actually reach help. Individuals and families need immediate access to high quality alcohol treatment and support when they need it and where they need it. Then we might just start saving lives rather than counting deaths.”

If you are worried about someone else’s alcohol or drug use, we are here to listen and to help. You can contact our team on 08080 10 10 11, helpline@sfad.org.uk or use the webchat on our website.

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