Drug deaths in Scotland: I've seen the grief caused by young lives cut short, but lives can be saved if we work together – Ewan Aitken

One of the hardest funerals I ever conducted was of a teenager who’d died on their own vomit after a drug overdose.

By Ewan Aitken
Thursday, 2nd September 2021, 4:45 pm
Updated Friday, 10th September 2021, 3:04 pm
A wreath depicting the number of drug overdoses in Scotland is laid outside the Scottish Parliament to mark International Overdose Awareness Day on Tuesday (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
A wreath depicting the number of drug overdoses in Scotland is laid outside the Scottish Parliament to mark International Overdose Awareness Day on Tuesday (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

They’d taken drugs given to them by a close family member, themselves living with addiction, who’d said it would “help them chill because they were struggling”.

As I stood at the graveside on a cold winter morning, I saw deep pain, grief, regret, confusion and anger etched on the faces of the mourners.

For a time, I struggled to find the words to make sense of the moment and to hold the raw emotions before me. Then chaos ensued. The person who’d given their teenage relative the drugs tried to jump into the grave while others fought to hold them back.

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Cries went up, harsh words were said, fists were raised, and it took everything I had to bring things back to some semblance of order. And all the time, this teenager lay in their grave, silenced and still, a life tragically cut short so unnecessarily and so brutally.

The mourners at this funeral weren’t alone in dealing with the incomprehensible pain of losing a loved one like this.

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In 2020, 1,339 drug-related deaths were registered in Scotland. This is the largest number of drug-related deaths since records began in 1996. Every one of them is a real person with their own story and potential, a loss not just to those close to them but to us all.

Ewan Aitken, CEO of Cyrenians Scotland.

Although every story will be different, we know there are four-and-a-half times as many of those stories in 2020 as there were in 2000. And we know, it’s a story that’s 18 times more likely for people already facing the impacts of poverty. It’s a story told more often in Scotland than anywhere else in Europe, including the rest of the UK. And it's a similar story with deaths due to alcohol, which also rose sharply in the last year.

People in poverty are not more inclined to drug use or addiction than anyone else, but the persistent stress, exclusion and anguish that living in poverty so often brings means drug and alcohol use can often seem like the only escape.

However, there can be routes out. With the right support built around a vibrant recovery community, and with encouragement not judgement from all of us, people can break free from addiction before it’s too late.

But the recovery journey needs to recognise that getting out of addiction is a lifetime struggle calling for lifetime support, and support needs to be built around peership and shared experience, people who’ve “been there” too.

Being amongst others in a similar situation can help develop the reassuring and authentic support needed in times of doubt or vulnerability. It can become a way for people to have the opportunity to thrive in their social and family networks, to access work, to avoid the impacts of poverty, and to be part of the community, as all of us want to be.

September is Recovery month in Scotland, and it’s also the month Cyrenians takes on a new role supporting the development of Edinburgh’s vibrant and growing recovery community. With encouragement and support from all of us, people can change their story to one of flourishing and hope.

Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland

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