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Adverse childhood experiences and mental health are drivers of drug use, MPs told

5 May 2019

Ahead of its first evidence session on drugs in Scotland, the Scottish Affairs Committee publishes written evidence from organisations such as NHS Health Scotland, Turning Point Scotland and the Glasgow City Alcohol and Drug Partnership, which highlights the drivers of problem drug use.

Written evidence notes clear links between mental health illness and problem drug use, and reveals how stressful and traumatic experiences in childhood can increase the likelihood of a person developing problematic drug use later in life. Evidence reveals that Scotland has a disproportionately high number of problem drug users, with drug-related deaths increasing from 224 in 1997 to 934 in 2017, and expected to top 1,000 for 2018.

Chair's comments

Commenting on the written evidence, Chair of the Committee Pete Wishart MP, said:

“As we start our inquiry into problem drug use in Scotland it’s important that we understand why some people are more likely to engage in drugs use, so support can be targeted to people at greater risk. The written evidence my Committee has received reveals that there are many complex factors that can lead an individual to problematic drug use, and some of these influences are felt more keenly in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.”

The Committee is holding its first evidence session for the inquiry on Tuesday 7 May, and will hear from academic experts on a range of issues including the effectiveness of decriminalisation, the relationship between benefits policy and problem drug use, and the UK Government’s decision to block the opening of a supervised drug consumption facility in Glasgow.

The effect of adverse childhood experiences

Several pieces of written evidence received by the Committee identify trauma, and in particular adverse childhood experiences, as a driver of problematic substance use. Adverse childhood experiences are stressful events occurring in childhood, such as domestic violence, physical, sexual or psychological abuse, or exposure to parental substance abuse.

Turning Point Scotland tells the Committee that “adults who experienced four or more adversities in their childhood, were… eleven times more likely to have used crack cocaine or heroin.” Evidence to the Committee explains that whilst adverse childhood experiences are also a driver of problem drug use elsewhere in the UK, Scotland has a far higher prevalence of social issues which lend themselves to adverse childhood experiences, such as children being removed from parental care and being raised in state care.

Link with mental health

The evidence also draws attention to links between mental health conditions and problematic drug. Angus Alcohol Drug Partnership and the Perth Kinross Alcohol Drug Partnership note that “74% of drug death casualties in Tayside in 2017 were known to have a co-existing mental health condition at the time of their death, most commonly depression (58%) and or anxiety (48%).” NHS Shetland’s evidence notes that mental health is also a driver of problem drug use in rural areas. They explain that the insular nature of small island communities can amplify difficult personal or social issues and that “a public engagement exercise carried out in Shetland cited poor mental health as a key driver for substance misuse, by way of self-medication.”

Further information

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