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Better understanding of childhood trauma could hold the key to tackling Scotland’s drug death crisis, it has been claimed.
Leading figures from the recovery community believe more needs to be done to address the link between childhood abuse and neglect and drug addiction later in life.
The issue is due to be discussed at an online event – Trauma at the Heart of Scotland’s Drug Deaths – which has been organised in response to figures published in December which revealed that 1,264 drug-related deaths were registered in Scotland in 2019.
The number represents an increase of 6 per cent on the previous year and a death rate which is the highest in Europe and 3.5 times that of the UK as a whole.
Event organiser Suzanne Zeedyk, a trauma expert and developmental psychologist, said the country needs to get “fiercely curious” about why people use drugs and what we can do to prevent that.
“I don’t think we can understand drug deaths, and Scotland’s high number of those, unless we also think about childhood trauma,” she said.
“Drug use comes from addiction, and addiction comes out of trying to meet the needs of a body to self-soothe.
“If we understand that, how could we change our legal system, our ways of responding to drug use?
“Why does Scotland have such a high rate of drug deaths and what is happening to so many of our young people that they become addicted?
“Rather than recommending immediate fixes, we need to get fiercely curious.”
Ms Zeedyk explained that when a child experiences stress and trauma, it can impact on their ability to self-regulate as an adult. And when adults cannot self-regulate, they turn to other vices for help.
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She believes more money should be invested in supporting families, particularly during times of stress, so that they can continue to provide safe and loving environments for children.
She added: “If we paid attention to how to do that, we would have fewer children growing up with childhood trauma that affects their stress system and has them turning to heroin and other drugs.”
The web event, which takes place this evening, will feature speakers with experience of trauma, addiction and recovery, including Annmarie Ward, founder of faces and voices in recovery, James Docherty, a member of ACE-aware nation, the organisation hosting the event, and Darren McGarvey, author and leading social commentator.
Ms Ward, who set up the You Keep Talking We Keep Dying campaign in response to the drug deaths crisis, claimed research suggests that the vast majority of addicts have experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, violence, or the death of a loved one.
ACEs research shows that if a child suffers four or more of these, they are more likely to go on to have health harming behaviours such as high-risk drinking or drug use later in life.
Ms Ward said: “Most people who are addicted have suffered trauma. We need to have cognisance of that and we need to adjust our services and practice. We need to start helping people to get well again.
“We have to invest in them to get well. So you have to offer rehabilitation.”
Current estimates suggest that there are only 22 fully government-funded rehab beds available in Scotland. While there are other beds, they are either private or third sector beds that receive little to no funding or are reserved for non-Scots.
Ms Ward is calling for a “rebalance” of funding, so that both harm-reduction methods, such as clean needles and methadone, and rehabilitation receive appropriate finance.
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Mr Docherty said that part of the problem is that society has a “lethal absence” of compassion and empathy when it comes to drug addicts.
“Look at how we treat these people,” he said. “We criminalise their attempts to soothe their pain.
“We’re warehousing untreated addiction and trauma in prison and wondering why these people don’t get better. It’s futile.”
He echoed Ms Zeedyk’s calls for more family support to help lower levels of childhood trauma and prevent addiction in the first place.
He said: “If society were to understand that drug addiction is a symptom based on childhood loss and trauma, then we would be examining the conditions of childhood in Scotland and asking ourselves ‘what is it that people need for healthy childhood development’.
“Childhood really needs to be taken into account if we want to stop people from becoming addicted in the first place.”