A record number of women died drug related deaths in 2021, according to new figures.
The annual statistics, published by the National Records of Scotland, show that a total of 1,330 people died last year, a one per cent decrease on the total of 2020, which was a record high.
However the number of women who died actually increased by eight per cent, with 397 women dying in 2021. This is the highest figure on record for women – the previous record was 393 in 2019.
Meanwhile the deaths of men fell from 973 to 933, a decrease of four per cent.
While men are still 2.4 times more likely to die of drug misuse than women, the disparity between the genders has been decreasing with drug deaths rising sharply for women in recent years.
Campaigners reacted with sadness and anger to the statistics, which they said showed almost no change from last year.
Annemarie Ward, chief executive of recovery charity Favor UK, said they were “Scotland’s shame” while the Scottish Drugs Forum said the tragic statistics represented “an on-going systemic failure” to either address poverty or offer the right support to vulnerable people.
Scotland’s death rate remains the worst in Europe and five times the rate in England.
In March The Ferret spoke to women in Dundee and Glasgow as part of its From the Margins series who said that they had struggled to get help and support with their drug use.
Charities and academics have claimed stigma makes it harder for women to access drug treatment, with mothers less able to be honest about their drug use due to fears that they will be removed from their care.
Of those women who died 21 were under the age of 25-years-old and the majority — 54 percent — were under 45.
Scotland has not had a residential rehabilitation centre that accepts women and their children for several years. But last August funding was announced for a National Specialist Residential Family Service run by recovery charity Phoenix Futures, and based in Saltcoats, North Ayrshire.
The facility will provide rehabilitation services for twenty families at any one time and will be based on an existing facility run by the organisation in Sheffield.
This March funding was also announced for children’s charity Aberlour to run two Mother and Child recovery houses, including one in Dundee, which is due to open this year.
In an interview, which was co-published by BBC’s Disclosure programme in March, minister for drug policy, Angela Constance, claimed the Scottish Government was aware of the link between the women who died of drug overdoses and the removal of their children.
She said: “I know there are women and children that have been let down and it’s my job and the job of Scottish Ministers as a whole and local services to make amends by that.
“I know that the disproportionate increase in women who are losing their lives to drugs, that there is a strong link between that and their grief in terms of losing their children.”
The Pause project —– which offers support to women living with addiction support if they agree to use contraception to prevent further pregnancies has found 233 women in a small sample of those who had had at least one child removed had died between 2016 and 2020. 70 percent of them were under 40 years old.
Kirsty Nelson, a nurse at Dundee’s Steeple Church who runs a support group for women in recovery, said she believed the difficulties women faced in accessing non-judgmental addiction services could be behind the rise.
“Women are more reluctant to access services – in our experience they miss more appointments especially if they are in abusive relationships, which they often are,” she said.
“The stigma that is attached to asking for help for women —– especially for mothers and including mothers who have had children removed —– is also a big factor. Many are unwilling to have to live through the trauma of telling their story to services again and again. If we are touting ourselves as recovery services but asking them to relive trauma then we’re failing.
“Finding a safe space can be so difficult for the vulnerable women we support.”
Nelson claimed many positive changes were happening in the city. They include a “hub” specifically for women at risk and a mother and child recovery house run by Aberlour, which is due to open later this year.
But she claimed statutory services now needed to step up to the plate and she called for a removal of the “three strikes and you’re out” policy for missed appointments. “My experience is these women are a lot less trusting,” she added. “You have to put the hard work in and if you live in a policy of three strikes you are not going to be able to do that.”
Many of the women who spoke to The Ferret back in March said they had removed themselves from statutory drug services because they did not feel listened to, and did not get the help — including the mental health support — that they needed.
Read more of The Ferret’s coverage on drug deaths in Scotland, here.
Justina Murray, chief executive of Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, added: “We need to do so much more to reach women who are experiencing problem drug use, and make sure that a full range of compassionate and person-centred treatment, care and support options are available for them.
“We know that women generally come into problem drug use for different reasons than men, but there is very little sign that we offer them anything different. We know women – and their wider families – are still scared to reach out for support for fear of coming onto the radar of social work.”
Policy, such as that developed by The Promise – the outcome of the Care Review which found families should get the right support they needed together wherever possible – must be translated into practice, she claimed.
Julie Ramsay, National Records of Scotland statistician highlighted the continued inequality at the heart of drug related deaths.
She said: “Drug misuse deaths have increased substantially over the past few decades —– there were more than five times as many deaths in 2021 compared with 1996. 2021 is the first year since 2013 that drug misuse deaths have not increased.
“In 2021, after adjusting for age, people in the most deprived areas were more than 15 times as likely to have a drug misuse death as those in the least deprived areas. This ratio has widened over the past two decades.”
Researcher Andrew McAuley, of Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “One of the most concerning aspects of the figures in recent years has been the rapid rise in deaths among females, which have increased by almost 150 percent since 2014 to a record high of 397 in 2021.
“There are now almost as many female drug deaths in Scotland as there are total drug deaths in Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Previous research has shown that women who use drugs in Scotland have been adversely affected by the cuts in funding to drug treatment services and the health and social care sector.”
Constance noted the rise in the deaths of women in the new figures and said while she welcomed the small decline she said the numbers remained “unacceptable”.
“These latest statistics provide yet more heart-breaking reading, and the situation remains unacceptable,” she said. “While there is so much more work to do, every life saved means one less family grieving and I am determined we can use this halt in the upward trend of recent years as a platform for real change.”
“I am concerned about the rise in deaths among women and will look to expand on current steps we are taking including the provision of two Mother and Child Residential Recovery Houses which will enable women to receive support while staying with their children.
She claimed focus would not be on investment in improving services, including residential rehab, and ensuring that drug treatment standards introduced in November 2020 and known as the Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) standards were implemented.
A recent report by Public Health Scotland found that as of June only 3 percent of Alcohol and Drug Partnerships had fully implemented the first standard to offer opiate replacement treatment —- such as methadone and buprenorphine —- on the same day help was requested. 60 percent had made no progress with this goal.
Constance claimsed a new oversight group will provide “scrutiny, challenge and expert advice on the National Mission as we continue our efforts to improve and save lives”.
Image Credit: iStock/kieferpix