SCOTTISH communities which have experienced the devastation of drug deaths have a key role to play in reducing the spiralling number of fatalities, according to the chair of the Scottish Government’s new drug deaths task force.

Professor Catriona Matheson was appointed last month, just days before official figures revealed that 1187 people had died in Scotland, up a shocking 27% from the previous year’s record high of 934.

Matheson, who will be speaking at A Matter of Life and Death – a recovery event in East Ayrshire hosted by community-led organisations Recovery Enterprises Scotland and Someone Else’s Addiction – on Friday claimed she would be pushing for more support for “evidenced community proposals” as part of her new role.

Affected communities could help people to find reasons to live, and the support and help to access treatment and healthcare that would help prevent deaths, she claimed. Stronger communities might also help make people less vulnerable to drug dealers, she added.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday National she said: “The task force will make progress, but it will be slow – it won’t happen in a year. So what can happen more urgently – and that could be put in place at a community level – is really important.

“People who have been affected can channel their experiences into something meaningful. Through the task force, I hope there will be more resources and funding made available to communities – certainly I’ll be pushing for that.”

She said Scotland could learn from peer-led initiatives in Canada, where impact has been evidenced.

“They have seen that advocacy is important,” she said. “I would specifically be looking for advocates helping people to access healthcare and I don’t just mean treatment. People can be scared of even going to a GP because they face discrimination.

“The other thing I’m interested in is reconnecting people with families because we know that people’s isolation and loneliness plays a big role in people’s lack of self-worth,” she added.

“People have got to have something to live for. They have often lost contact with families and loved ones and feel ashamed and embarrassed about what they may they have done to them.

“So I would really like to see projects that help people to rebuild family connections.

“Communities can help with education and engaging with the wider community and making them understand what is behind drug use – the trauma, the adverse childhood events. And by doing that on a local level, it might go some way towards reducing the stigma.

“Building resilience in communities can mean when young people are targeted to be initiated into drug use, the community is strong enough to rebuff some of that.

“I don’t have any easy answers there, but that is something we would like to work on.”

The first meeting of the task force – which will include members from health, criminal justice and lived experience background – is slated for early September but she stressed hard work was already ongoing.

Initiatives aiming to prevent deaths as quickly as possible include piloting digital monitors that can detect breathing and sound when a drug overdose may have taken place, as well as training in Naloxone – which can be injected to save someone from a heroin overdose – for community pharmacists.

Meanwhile, proposals for long-term work to understand how to improve treatment, including better access to counselling services are being developed, and due to start imminently, she said. “There is so much there that could be done to improve our delivery of services,” she added.

“All the people working there are coming from a good place. But the systems need to change.”

Jardine Simpson, director of the Scottish Recovery Consortium, welcomed her approach, claiming that recovery communities had much to offer in improving treatment and support.

“Recovery Communities provide psycho-social support in safe, non-stigmatising environments,” he added. “We see people beginning and developing their own recovery journeys in communities all over the country.

“One of addiction’s bedrock harms is isolation. Recovery Communities understand this through their own experience and provide compassionate connection. They give hope to people who have no belief that positive change is possible. Hope can develop into the belief that they can achieve a fulfilling life free from substances or harmful behaviours with the support of those who have successfully walked that path.”

Detective Inspector Norrie Petrie, of Police Scotland’s Safer Communities, said the force was also supportive of a public health approach, rather than a criminal justice one. “Substance harm prevention is a health and wellbeing issue,” he added. “We work with all our partners, and recognise the need for diversionary options to be put in place for us to refer substance users to.”

He said that Police Scotland was “keeping a close eye on” pilot projects in Thames Valley and Durham where so-called “de-facto” decriminalisation of personal possession means offenders are referred into services rather than charged. However, he acknowledged any Scottish scheme must work within the current legal framework.

“We continue to target serious and organised crime groups who wish to bring harm to our communities,” he added.