Darren McGarvey: Politicans must be honest about everyone’s mental health problems

Ruth Davidson was praised across the political spectrum for her honesty about her problems. Picture: John Devlin
Ruth Davidson was praised across the political spectrum for her honesty about her problems. Picture: John Devlin
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Last week, Scottish Conservatives party leader Ruth Davidson revealed she has no desire to become UK Prime Minister.

But Davidson’s announcement came with a personal admission that her decision was informed, not by a political calculation, but an acute awareness of the tremendous strain such a demanding, high-profile job would place on her.

She also revealed that as a ­teenager she struggled with depression, self-harming and suicidal thoughts. Her honesty appeared to disarm many of her opponents, albeit temporarily, as Ruth received praise from all corners of the ­political realm for her willingness to open up about a central issue of our time: mental health.

The day before the feature about Davidson was published, the topic of mental health was in the air on the streets of Glasgow. One ­thousand people – many bussed in from as far as Caithness – marched to highlight the shocking increase of drug and alcohol-related deaths and ­suicides across Scotland. This day-long ­festival, which took place at Glasgow Green after the march, followed a remembrance event for those who have perished from ­alcohol, substances or suicide, which was held in Glasgow’s George Square on Thursday.

The Scottish Recovery Consortium – a charity promoting recovery from addictions in Scotland – say that as well as the 934 drug-related deaths, more than 1200 were caused by alcoholism with an additional 680 suicides last year. It’s thought that drug-related deaths in 2018 will increase to more than 1000.

Let’s be frank here: the Scottish Government hasn’t even got its ­collective head around dealing with the legacy of drug problems in the 1980s. In 2014, more than half-a-million methadone prescriptions were issued at a cost of £17m.

At the time, Dr Neil McKeganey, from the Centre for Drug Misuse Research, said the national methadone program was “literally a black hole into which people are disappearing”. There remains little information on how many people have been parked on methadone, what progress they are making and how many manage to come off it. These days, heroin is just the tip of the ­iceberg where Scotland’s drug ­problem is concerned.

To cope with poor mental health, family dysfunction, past trauma, residential instability, homelessness and a welfare system that rewards its staff for treating ­vulnerable people with hostility, increasing numbers are turning to an ever-growing variety of substances that temporarily numb emotional pain and anxiety.

From street Valium – which ­continues to claim lives despite broad public awareness of the ­dangers – to even more bizarre ­concoctions such as spice, a hybrid of herbs and man-made chemicals with extreme mind-altering effects, the way people use drugs and which drugs they choose to use is evolving.

The emergence of online drug-dealers, often masquerading as pharmacies, has also opened a ­portal to the US opioid crisis as powerful sedatives like Xanax flood our streets. In just over a year, two friends from the music scene in Glasgow have lost their lives and I have direct experience of how easy these drugs are to obtain and how hard they are to put down.

So far, the strategy in Scotland has been focused mainly on busting the gangs manufacturing or dealing the drugs – and making a big public display out of how well it’s all going. Police Scotland is more than happy to invite journalists on a dawn raid to make a song and dance about how tough we are getting on people who profit from the misery of others though, incidentally, they are less likely to conduct public relations exercises around all the addicts they have helped prosecute and imprison, who make up a substantial amount of Scotland’s unsustainable prison population.

As we know, stemming the supply of drugs only addresses part of the problem. There remains the thorny, politically complicated matter of dealing with demand.

It’s politically complicated to the extent that it requires, first, an admission than imprisonment is not an incentive not to use drugs; addiction trumps all logic and ­reason when it takes hold. ­Second, that becoming an alcoholic or an addict is not evidence of a lack of will power or some personality defect, but a phenomenon that emerges in people of all social backgrounds.

Thirdly, it’s politically complicated because, as well as conceding some hard truths, it’s looking a very enfranchised, electorally valuable section of the public directly in the eye and telling them they are wrong, that criminalisation does not work, that poverty is the root cause of drug-related deaths and that we will make no dent in this problem until we modulate the quality of the supply itself. It requires a wholesale reset of how we approach addiction, from how services are funded, to how they operate, as well as rewriting drug laws from top to bottom.

Where mental health is ­concerned, this problem requires more than a willingness from politicians to be honest about their own struggles – as welcome and commendable as that is from Ruth Davidson. It will require a steadfast ­commitment and determination to get serious (and honest) about the nature of everyone else’s problems.

I have no doubt that drug deaths in Scotland would still be far too high, regardless of whether a Conservative government sat in Westminster.

But I have even less doubt that the current crop of socially ambivalent, emotionally-detached Conservative ministers calling the shots across health, welfare and housing, are doing their very best, by default of their evident social ineptitude, to make it a whole lot worse.