The Bigger Picture- The Leaving and Drinking

In the second of three blogs introducing us to the world of The Leaving, Andy McLoughlin is looking at what the research says about drinking- in Ireland, among young people, and how it affects our health and society. Sources at the bottom.

Ireland is in sort of a weird place with alcohol right now in that we’re sort of beginning to think that maybe it’s a problem (82% of us to be precise (1)), but we’re having a lot of trouble pinpointing exactly what it is that’s going wrong for us. The problem, it seems, is that alcohol is so ubiquitous that imagining Ireland without it seems impossible. And when something’s everywhere, it can be tempting to think of it as natural. And when something seems natural, it’s easy to imagine it as being good, or at least inevitable. So hopefully by looking at some actual statistics and information we can help ourselves see the wood for the trees a little bit when it comes to where our habits fit in with the rest of the world before we look at the version of the world Tom Swift shows us in The Leaving.

So let’s ask- is Ireland really that exceptional when it comes to drink? Answer: yes. (2)

Underage drinking in and of itself doesn’t seem to be such an Irish phenomenon. A survey of fifteen year olds in Europe found that in a majority of countries, 90% or more kids under the age of 16 had had a full drink of alcohol. The study also ranked different countries in Europe according to the prevalence of certain drinking habits. When it comes to having moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, Irish kids tend to come 4-6th, which is high, but by no means exceptional. But where we really excel is in binge drinking (that is the equivalent of three pints or more), particularly on a regular basis. When focusing on regular binge drinking in particular, Irish teenagers tend to come first or second, usually behind either Denmark or The Netherlands, and, in case you were wondering, about two or three in front of the UK and streets ahead of any of the statistics for the US. (2)

The health defects for young people are especially pronounced. Someone who starts drinking before they turn 15 is more likely to develop substance abuse problems, have risky sex (that is unprotected or non-consensual sex), get in drink-driving accidents, or get in an injury or start a fight than someone who starts to drink later (3). Alcohol is the leading contributory factor in fatal injuries and suicides, both of which disproportionately affect young people (4). At a time when people are exploring their sexuality for the first time, alcohol impairs our judgement, contributing to 50% of sexual assaults, and 90% of acquaintance rapes (5). For every risk that alcohol poses to an adult, those risks are compounded by the vulnerability of adolescence

Now I’m not saying alcohol is the devil or anything. There are some real and significant health benefits to drinking moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis as an adult (6). But we’re not talking about adults here. And we’re certainly not talking about moderate amounts. As far as I can see, it’s exactly this culture of binge drinking in adolescence that has led to alcohol being one of the biggest sources of preventable illness and death in Ireland (4). Anyone with a brain in this country can tell you that young people make dangerous and unhealthy decisions when they’re binge drinking, but what’s more insidious is the effect that underage drinking continues to have on people as they mature into adults. 40% of people who begin drinking before they are 15 later go on to have what can be described as alcoholic behaviours (3). There is also a growing body of evidence that teen drinking has serious and permanent detrimental effects on brain development (3). For each of these patterns, the earlier you start, the more pronounced the effect (3). The majority of health problems caused by alcohol are found in adults, but until we can admit that the roots of those problems are found in adolescence, alcohol is just going to keep on killing us.

 

Now I’ve just given you a lot of scary statistics, and I do think that underage binge drinking should be given attention as the health issue that it is. But there’s only so much that can be captured by statistics. In the case of alcohol it happens that those things which are the easiest to measure and quantify are also the things that go on hospital and criminal records. What is almost impossible to get data on is just how often people drink and nothing out of the ordinary happens at all beyond a general feeling of happiness, followed the morning after by a general feeling of uneasiness. It really is quite a small minority of people who have a problem with drinking (7). But the data also doesn’t capture the outward ripples of torment that minority creates for those they are closest to (personally and geographically). So really any picture I can paint using only statistics is going to be incomplete.

To get a real idea of the mindset that makes Irish youth so unique, there’s no better way than going straight to the source. So we decided to conduct a series of interviews with your friends and children about their time as juvenile delinquents. These interviews will be released over the course of the next week and a half, and we hope they can be of some use in starting a conversation around alcohol. Next week we’ll have a blog reflecting on the findings of those interviews, so stay tuned.

 

  1. Public attitudes to alcohol in Ireland, a recent survey- Drugnet Ireland http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/11256/
  2. Alcohol and other drug use among students in 35 European Countries- ESPAD http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/5188/
  3. Surgeon General’s Call To Action to Prevent And Reduce Underage Drinking http://camy.org/_docs/resources/fact-sheets/Call_To_Action.pdf
  4. Alcohol related harm in Ireland https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/publications/hospitals/Alcohol_Related_Harm_in_Ireland.html
  5. Sex & Alcohol- Sexplanations https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yuMDqVs39I
  6. Booze Isn’t All Bad- Healthcare Triage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIEJvsDakj4
  7. Overtreating Kids, and the Shocking Truth About Alcohol in the US: Healthcare Triage News https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w_mp925s6M


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