How many more reports will be requisitioned and how much more money will be spent in gathering statistics about our attitude to the taking of alcohol and its abuse by our young people? And when will something actually be done about it?. We appear to accept that it is alright to see our young people in a drunken state on our streets. In the recent past our young people have been filmed, for national television, at foreign holiday destinations drunk and abusive and engaging in activities that are harmful to themselves and others. Highlighting the abuse of alcohol by our young people is important because alcohol is the most dangerous of drugs and yet it is freely available and legal. It is generally the starting point for the taking of other substances that alter moods and have long-term effects on the user.
There is an acceptance that our young people today, many who binge drink at weekends, a trend that sets them apart from their European counterparts, is not alone condoned but ignored by parents, the law, and basic common sense. Biologically teenagers brains are still developing and alcohol targets and damages the areas of the brain responsible for memory, impulse control, reasoning, logic, self regulation and judgement. All of these impact on thinking, functioning and behaviour. Behavioural patterns that last a lifetime are being established during these formative years as people. According to Dr Bobby Smyth young people who started drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those that start older. Early drinking is also associated with other risky behaviours such as the use of illegal drugs, unsafe sex and poor mental and physical health. Adult heavy drinkers and alcoholics generally established their drinking patterns in their teens.
Alcohol impacts on mental health. Mental health means different things to different people. Good mental health is usually about a positive way of living and being able to handle and cope with everyday situations. Every drug interferes with the chemicals in your brain and alcohol can contribute to the development of mental health problems as well as exacerbating pre-existing mental health difficulties. In Ireland alcohol is directly attributed to 88 deaths every month and one in every four deaths of young men between the ages of 15 and 39 is due to alcohol. One in three road deaths are also attributed to alcohol consumption. Yet in our country we not alone encourage the use of alcohol by advertisements, lack of law enforcement, cheap drink and easy access, we accept it as a way of celebrating and as a good pastime. Drinking is the centrepiece of gatherings and be it happy or sad times we use alcohol as a way of marking the event.
Following the initial feeling of wellbeing after the first drink alcohol then acts as a depressant and feelings of anxiety and depression quickly resurface. Alcohol can exaggerate underlying feelings of anger, tearfulness or aggression after drinking the first few drinks. The anti-social behaviour on our streets at weekends confirms this. Alcohol may produce feelings of happiness initially but can lead to significant lowering of moods in the hours and days after consumption leading to feelings of hopelessness and if someone is already feeling a degree of depression the fall in mood can lead to suicidal ideas.
Many reports identify a strong link between alcohol misuse and thoughts of suicide, attempted and completed suicides among young people under twenty four years of age. The HSE in a report stated that alcohol can facilitate suicidal thoughts by increasing impulsivity, changing moods and a deepening of depressed feelings. Self Harm can take place after just one drinking session. The WHO (World Health Org) has estimated that the risk of suicide when a person is abusing alcohol is eight times greater than those who do not. A report in the UK (Mental Health Foundation) states that as many as 65% of suicide deaths were related to excessive drinking and alcohol is recognised as one of the highest risks of suicides. The HSE research and data confirms that alcohol alone continue to be the main cause of deaths by poisoning. Alcohol was responsible for one in three deaths by poisoning in 2011, more than any other drug used.
Excessive drinking is associated with low self esteem and poor mental health. Amongst young people 11% say that parental alcohol use had a negative impact on their lives , that is approximately 109,684 children. Parents and adults should note that young people model their drinking behaviour on the attitudes and actions of the adults they see around them as well as being influenced by alcohol marketing and their peers. A person’s tolerance of alcohol increases with use so that an individual needs to increase the amount of alcohol to decrease their anxiety or to medicate their depression. It is also difficult to know when enough is enough.
In a recent survey conducted across Europe, 48% of boys and 52% of girls in the 15/16 age bracket in Ireland said they had used alcohol in the previous thirty days. Where is the law? Where are their parents? Girls out -numbered boys, a trend observed since 1995. This is very serious because girls and women process alcohol at a slower rate than boys or men and so, it takes less alcohol to cause the same level of damage, both short term and long-term.
The impact of drunkenness has already surfaced as chronic alcohol related health conditions among young people are becoming increasingly common and diseases normally associated with older people are being treated in much younger people. This includes an increase in alcohol liver disease (ALD) among the younger age groups. It is both extraordinary and worrying that among 15 to 34 year old people there has been a 275% increase in ALD between the years 1995-2009 – and nobody seems to be doing anything about it!. This increase in alcohol liver disease suggests we are starting to see the effects of the large increase in alcohol consumption in this age group.
The ease of access to alcohol is also a source of concern. There has been an explosion in the number of outlets selling alcohol at “pocket money” prices with a bottle of beer less than the price of a bottle of water. Discounts on multiple packs of alcohol has created a culture where young people buy slabs of beer for consumption adding to the problem. The consequences of this are evident. In 2011, 84% of Irish 15/16 yr olds reported alcohol was “very easy or fairly easy” to get, compared to 75% in 2007. 26% said they bought alcohol for their own consumption from the “off trade” in the previous month to the survey being taken and 37%7 said they had bought drink from an on-trade outlet in the same period. Where are the laws being implemented? When 15 and 16 year olds are making such blatant statements about breaking the law..
So what does all that data and research tell us? It tells us that our young girls and boys are storing up a lot of addiction problems in the future, with lives destroyed and futures blighted. A generation who will not be able to reach their full potential because of chronic illnesses associated with the abuse of alcohol. There will also, sadly, be a great deal of unhappiness. Adults and those who care for young people will regret the day when they did not oversee the rearing of children and explain the difficulties that lie ahead by accepting or turning a blind eye to early alcohol use. We are together storing up unnecessary trouble down the road for those so young and vulnerable.
We have the data and the statistics. We know the short-term and long term damage that alcohol is inflicting. We must now start making responsible choices to stem the tide. There are NO safe limits for alcohol consumption for young people.
The choice is for all of us to make and implement.