The First Sip
Most of us can remember the first time we tasted alcohol. We might have been offered some by our parents, snuck in a swig while they slept, giggled with friends as they brought a bottle of something inconspicuous along to the park, watching and laughing with each other as we pretended the slight buzz meant we were drunk. Or, maybe the first sip wasn’t so warm and fuzzy. Perhaps it was because of peer pressure, morbid curiosity, or even a cry for help. Whatever the reason, our first sip formed the basis of our relationship with alcohol.
The average age a person tries alcohol in the UK is 13.1 This is relatively young when you consider the legal drinking age is 18. The consequences of so many young people drinking that early has resulted in underage drinking becoming a leading public health problem, with approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 dying every year as a result, which includes motor, homicide, suicide and other alcohol related incidents.2 And yet, alcohol remains the ‘drug of choice’ for most young people, primarily due to its accessibility. It’s also cheap, has a reputation of ‘safety’ over other drugs, and is associated with enhancing social behaviour. Add the physical, emotional and lifestyle changes each adolescent undergoes and it’s easy to see why so many engage in this harmful trend.
Alcohol dependence and abuse affects the health and wellbeing of any individual, but especially those who drink heavily when they’re young. Apart from the external effects, e.g. bad breath, skin complaints and weight gain, the internal damage can interfere with vital organs and even prevent healthy brain development. It is a known depressant, and studies have shown that abnormalities in areas of the brain dealing with motivation, reasoning and interpersonal interactions are greatly affected.3 Alcohol also lowers our inhibitions, which means young people are more likely to put themselves at risk, such as getting into fights, having unprotected sex, participating in dangerous activities and even self-harming.
Breaking the Addiction
Breaking any addiction is complex. Help breaking an alcohol dependence in a society that promotes its consumption is even more complex. The reason/s someone becomes dependant can be as multi-faceted as they are. What needs to change is the way in which alcohol is introduced to begin with, followed by how the addiction is approached and tackled if it forms.
Education around alcohol is crucial. We need to explain what the effects are, what happens to our bodies when we drink too much, and the risks involved if we do. It’s not as simple as taking away or banning alcohol (teenagers are notoriously wilful); it’s about teaching moderation from the moment they have their first sip. This can only be done with clear and open communication from the outset.
It’s hard to identify an addiction straight away, especially when teenagers tend to drink to excess anyway (aka: binge). Yet heightened anger, lying, seclusion and obvious signs like bloodshot eyes or slurred speech are key causes for concern.4
Boundaries and consequences are needed. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. There will be an underlying reason unique to anyone who abuses alcohol; so, creating a safe space for that person to open up about why they’re drinking to excess is the first step in breaking the addiction.
There is a wider issue too. As a society, more needs to be done. Debates around raising the price of alcohol, increasing the minimum legal drinking age, enacting zero-tolerance laws around under 18’s and including prevention programmes in schools are all topics for consideration.5 Until we change our attitude to drinking, the culture around it won’t shift. Many recoveries are undone because adolescents fall back into bad habits due to feeling left out of their social group. Support to prevent a relapse should ideally be encouraged amongst friends and family. The answer isn’t to stigmatise, isolate and shame the person who’s struggled with addiction. They need to be included and encouraged to take part in activities that aren’t harmful to their health without feeling like the odd one out.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
There are many treatment options available for people struggling with an alcohol addiction, but their success is entirely dependent on whether the person being treated actually wants to get better. Sadly, unless someone truly wants to change, it’s unlikely any treatment programme will work long-term. That said, if you are someone reading this looking for help, then you are already on the road to recovery.
Treatment programmes generally fall into three categories:
- Residential Treatment Programmes
- Inpatient Hospitalisation Programmes
- Outpatient or Day Treatment Programmes
Other softer options include:
- Alcohol Counselling/Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
- Youth Wilderness Therapy Programmes
- Therapeutic Boarding School Programmes
- Residential Addiction Treatment School
An evaluation will be carried out before you enter into any of these programmes.6 The aim is to match you to one that is best suited to help you. It is also important that you are happy with where you’re going, so conducting your own research and making sure it fits your needs is an important step on your journey to recovery. Tailoring your own treatment will make it more likely you’ll stick to it and reap the benefits long after you’ve recovered, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and get an understanding of what to expect once you start a programme. Talk to your family, your doctor, or look online before making a decision.
For further information, visit the our subject resource page alcohol here.
Addiction is an illness. Compassion, understanding and zero judgement is the only way someone will feel empowered to improve and heal themselves. Young people increasingly lack self-esteem and self-confidence, and alcohol is an artificial antidote to a long standing societal issue. We need to offer more innovative ways to tackle the problem, especially with underage drinking, and we do that by being honest about the underlying causes, which often extend far beyond one person’s difficulties.
Breaking an addiction starts with recognition. It ends with care and consideration.
Drinkaware 2014 Monitor: Young People Report. Available at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/about-us/knowledge-bank/young-people-monitor-key-points
NIH: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism publication. Available at: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA67/AA67.htm
2009 Chief Medical Officer Report. Guidance on the Consumption of Alcohol by Children and Young People. Available at: http://www.cph.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Guidance-on-the-consumption-of-alcohol-by-children-and-young-people.pdf
Alcoholism: signs, symptoms and treatment. Article available at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcoholism/
National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA67/AA67.htm
NHS: Alcohol misuse treatment options. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/treatment/