THE number of parents referred to official agencies over drugs and alcohol misuse has more than doubled since the start of pandemic, a new study has found.
In the three months before the first lockdown, there was an average of 26 Scots parents a month referred by the NSPCC in Scotland to Scottish agencies, such as police and local authorities. Now it has soared to 63 a month.
Charity sources say that this will be the “tip of the iceberg” as many cases will go unreported.
Referrals are only made to external agencies when concerns reported to the helpline are considered to be serious enough to warrant further investigation or if it is felt a family needs support.
The children’s support charity is now calling on the Scottish Government to ensure services for people affected by drug and alcohol addiction take a ‘whole family approach’.
The number of people from across the UK calling the NSPCC helpline with concerns about parents’ use of drugs and alcohol has increased by 66% since the start of the pandemic.
The NSPCC in Scotland says that living in household where a parent or carer misuses substances does not necessarily mean a child will experience abuse, but it can make it more difficult for parents to provide safe and consistent care and this can lead to abuse or neglect. It can also have a serious impact on children’s emotional well-being.
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The charity says that due to the pandemic, children are much more immersed in the problems they are facing at home. Schools have stayed open for vulnerable children and those of key workers but many remain at home and the NSPCC says that means there is “no escape” for those living with parental substance misuse.
Joanne Smith, policy and public affairs officer for NSPCC Scotland, said: “These figures are concerning, but it’s likely they show a fraction of the picture because we know there is under-reporting of substance misuse due to issues of stigma, secrecy and denial.
“This leads to many adults not accessing the treatment services they need, as well as the support to help them as parents.”
At the end of last month, Nicola Sturgeon pledged an extra £250 million over the next five years to help tackle drug addiction.
The First Minister said £50m a year will be allocated over the coming parliamentary term as part of a “national mission” to address the scandal.
The charity said: “As numbers of contacts to the helpline continue to rise, it is vital that local substance misuse services are accessible during the pandemic.
“Last month, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced new investment into improving and increasing services for people affected by drug addiction in the country. It is crucial that these and alcohol addiction services take a ‘whole family approach’, recognising the impact of substance misuse on children and the need to support adults as parents.”
Separate research found that sales of alcohol per adult dropped by 6% in the early part of lockdown.
A study by Public Health Scotland and the University of Glasgow found the drop in Scotland as well as England and Wales between mid-March and July 11 last year.
But according to a self-reporting survey done as part of the research, Scotland saw a rise of 35% of people who said they would drink on their own, while England reported a 12% rise.
At the end of last year research found that almost one in four drinkers in Scotland are guzzling alcohol at increasing or high risk levels during the Covid-19 pandemic leading to serious concerns about the health of the nation in lockdown.
More than two-in-five (43%) Scots who already drink at increasing or higher risk levels – more than 14 units a week – reported they are now quaffing more than they would usually, according to the study by alcohol education charity Drinkaware.
The study found certain groups – including those on furlough and those with caring responsibilities and parents – are drinking more and are displaying “worrying drinking habits that could become ingrained”.
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The advice group called calling on governments to recognise the impact of increased alcohol consumption as a public health priority, saying it should be considered as an important factor in both obesity and mental health strategies.
There have been nearly 11,000 deaths caused by alcohol recorded between 2010 and 2019.
Some 23,751 people in Scotland were admitted to a general acute hospital with an alcohol-related diagnosis in 2018/19 – that remains four times higher than in the early 1980s.
But official figures also show that before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, the number of alcohol-specific deaths had dropped by 10% in the last full year from 1,136 in 2018 to 1,020 in 2019.
That was the first substantial drop in the number of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland since 2012.
It followed the introduction of minimum unit pricing by the Scottish government in May 2018 a bid to cut consumption and save lives.
Kam Thandi, head of NSPCC helpline, said: “Parental substance misuse can have a seriously detrimental impact on the whole family. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have created a perfect storm for families affected by this problem.
“At the NSPCC helpline we’ve not only seen a rise in contacts and referrals but we’re also seeing families who weren’t previously known to children’s services requiring help and support for substance misuse.
“The pressures on families at the moment are unprecedented and it is no surprise that our helpline is hearing that parents and carers are struggling with substance misuse. To keep our children safe it’s vital that those who are relying on drugs and alcohol, to the extent that the care of their children is being compromised, must seek help.
“The Scottish Government must also invest more in local services. Our frontline practitioners have told us that many parents and carers are struggling to access specialist support services which will help them recover from the impact of the pandemic.”
Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs said 1,680 people had asked for help between March and November, up from 935 in the same period last year.
Families of people with addiction problems accounted for 34% of the increase while there was a 244% jump in contacts from people using substances themselves – from 177 to 609.
The charity said this was possibly because many were struggling to access any other support services.
The Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) which has launched a manifesto for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election has called on all parties and candidates to recognise that alcohol-related harm has implications for physical and mental health, and to commit to policies that will help tackle Scotland’s booze problem.
The NSPCC’s concerns are being backed by Adfam, a charity which provides support to families affected by drug, alcohol or gambling addiction.
Vivienne Evans, the charity’s chief executive, said: “We are seeing that the usual daily challenges associated with a parent or family member’s alcohol or drug problem – fear, domestic abuse, isolation, loneliness, and mental stress – are being exacerbated by the lockdown measures.
“A staggering 88% of the families that we surveyed in our Families in Lockdown survey told us that the first lockdown negatively impacted on their family member’s alcohol, drug or gambling problem. A third of families experienced an increase in verbal abuse from their family member and 13% feel more concerned than usual for their safety.
“As drug and alcohol misuse is so stigmatised, we know that many young people are scared to seek support, and for many children affected by parental substance use, the lockdown impedes them from the safety of the school environment. We know that with the right kind of support, children and young people can navigate this challenging time. We urge families not to wait until breaking point.”
Last year Scotland was found to have the highest rate of alcohol-specific deaths in the UK although rates had improved significantly over the past two decades.
The Office of National Statistics said the death rate in Scotland was twice that of England in 2018.
However, it said Scotland was the only UK nation where the rate improved significantly this century.
And new figures at the end of last year showed there were 1,264 drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2019, the highest rate in Europe.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We know that the pandemic has taken a toll on all of us and each person’s response to the restrictions is different. Since the start of the pandemic we have provided additional support to those struggling with alcohol and drug issues, including increased funding for alcohol and drug services to ensure support services remain open and accessible wherever possible.
“While figures published today reflect a welcome reduction of total alcohol consumption in Scotland in the early stages of the pandemic, we continue to track and monitor the effect during lockdown. We know that lower levels of consumption overall can sometimes mask the alcohol intake of individuals and we are working closely with partners, including Public Health Scotland, in the development of surveillance systems to monitor and respond to emerging issues and ensure that there is support available.
“We agree that a whole family approach, which recognises and supports family members, is vital in helping all of those harmed by alcohol or drug misuse build their own resilience and recover.”