Learning Points: Teens' alcohol attitudes are deadly serious

Learning Points: Teens' alcohol attitudes are deadly serious

Adolescent drinking beer - alcoholism among young adults

Last week I wrote about the need for mental health promotion to be designed and delivered in a way that has a positive impact on people’s lives. 

I suggested that many of the efforts to promote mental health in schools only pay lip service to the issue and need to be revamped as a matter of urgency. The Government recently allocated €32 million into health services, which is a huge boost but we need an integrated strategic plan so that those services are in a better position to deliver top quality consultation to those who need it. 

Of course, it is very easy to point out the flaws, and harder to offer suggestions about how things can be different or better. So, in today’s column I’m going to discuss one aspect I feel we, as a society, need to focus attention so that we better equip our teens to deal with mental health issues when they arise.

An area, I see, that needs rapid intervention is that of teenage drinking. It is something I have spoken and written about a considerable amount. We have very high levels, in this country, of teenage binge drinking. 

In a survey carried out last year by Alcohol Action Ireland they found that over 77% of teens say they have drunk alcohol while a staggering 33% say they drunk alcohol before the age of 12. We rank third, globally, for the highest percentage of teens who engage in binge drinking. This statistic, alone, should motivate us to intervene immediately but we are more comfortable turning a blind eye to the issue. I’m not a prude, but I see the devastation alcohol brings into young lives. 

I hear it in my clinic, teenage boys talking about how they manage their feelings with alcohol. I generally hear the same story; a relationship breaks down, they turn to alcohol to satiate those feelings of rejection or anger, they get drunk, they ruminate on why they were dumped, their ability to think logically is greatly diminished, they send a message they soon regret and they drink more trying to reach brute oblivion to forget about those feelings and that message they wish they hadn’t sent and then dark thoughts can creep into their mind.

Some act on this impulse with tragic consequences, while others thankfully don’t, and sleep it off. The carnage from alcohol does not find enough expression in our society. The amount of deaths that occur due to alcohol consumption is not accurately reported. And schools do not do enough to inform students about the dangers of drinking to excess. 

We must not shy away from this topic, because it is literally killing our teenagers. We must teach our children that using a depressant to regulate emotions is a recipe for disaster and massively exasperates the issue in the first place.

If we look at that pattern of behaviour I utilised to show how teenage boys often find themselves in a dangerously vulnerable mind-set we must first look at how the teenager has come to view alcohol as an appropriate remedy for emotional distress. Where do our children first encounter alcohol? What do they see? Whenever parents use alcohol in front of their children they are writing the paradigm by which their children will engage with alcohol. 

This is not about blame but about understanding that the adult world is always modeling behaviours for children that they will enact as they go through life. Of course, children will see the adult world drinking over the course of their formative years, but it is how the adult world uses alcohol in front of their children that is significant. 

If after a long week you come how and say, ‘I really need that drink, ah that’s so much better’ and your child’s young eyes are soaking this up they will obviously view alcohol as something that fixes or has medicinal qualities rather than a drug. We have to watch the messages we give our children about alcohol. We can’t just expect the government or the school to tackle this issue. For it to be effective we must all say the same thing; alcohol is a drug and it does not ameliorate negative feelings, in fact it makes those feelings worse. 

We must teach our children when they encounter adversity or a challenge to lean into more positive practices like expressing what it is they are feeling and whom to talk to. Schools must start to roll out initiatives that really start to tackle this serious issue.

We all know the chances of risky behaviour increases dramatically when we are intoxicated. We must break our complacency with this particular drug and start to view it for what it is, a dangerous substance that is killing our teenagers. 

We must stop normalising its use and come out of the shadow of propaganda we have been fed for so many years. We did it with cigarettes, we can do it with alcohol too. Our children deserve it.

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