Many Australian respondents to the 2016 Global Drug Survey (GDS) reported they are drinking too much alcohol, and want to drink less, yet they believe they can’t do so without help. The GDS surveys drug use mostly amongst young adults: the median age of respondents worldwide was 28.7 years and nearly half the respondents (47%) were aged under 24 years.
5,000 Australians completed the GDS and the alcohol results make disturbing reading. While four of out of ten respondents (42%) said they hoped to drink less in the next twelve months, and 13.7% thought they needed help to achieve that, only 4.2% were planning to seek help. New Zealand respondents had a similar view – 32% want to reduce drinking, 20% want help to cut down, but only 5% plan to actually seek help.
These results confirmed a study of 1,000 25-year-old New Zealanders found that 351 had problems with alcohol in the past four years but only 26 of those had sought help for their problem. Something is seriously wrong in Australia and New Zealand when people do not act on their self-perception that their drinking is out of control. Nearly a quarter of Australian respondents to the GDS (23.7%) reported that they had either hurt themselves or other people, as a result of their drinking, so in those cases their view that they need help is well founded.
So what is stopping them from seeking help?
Stigma, embarrassment, shame and guilt are probably to blame for people’s reluctance to seek help for a drinking problem. While some people can cut down or stop drinking of their own accord, many heavy drinkers will continue to drink excessively for decades before finally seeking assistance. Dr Nadine Ezard of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney stated that “heavy drinkers usually waited 20 years before seeking help after they recognise they need it. However, by that time the drinker may have damaged their health, often irretrievably, and typically suffered a range of social and familial problems”.
Research indicates that it is easier for people to moderate their heavy drinking earlier in life rather than when it becomes an entrenched feature. ‘Brief interventions’ by general practitioners and other health professionals are often sufficient to help a person take control of their drinking. Not only does this produce massive quality of life benefits to the individual drinker, but it can provide the health system with a cost benefit dividend over many years (Heather, 2001).
All of us can encourage people who think they need assistance to seek help at the first opportunity. Low effort help is available such as talking to a local GP who can advise on techniques for cutting down on consumption or avoiding situations where harmful drinking might occur.
What can we do to help?
We can discourage our friends and family members from drinking too much by our own example of low risk consumption, by arranging leisure activities that do not involve drinking, and by expressing our concern for their wellbeing. We can support calls for additional funding for alcohol treatment so services can respond faster and accommodate more people.
More fundamentally we can support evidence informed policy and encourage governments to adopt:
- End alcohol sponsorship of sport
- Greater controls on alcohol advertising, marketing and merchandise.
- Earlier closing times of on and off licensed premises.
- Higher taxation of alcohol products.
- Increased treatment services
Heather. (2001). Brief Interventions. In P. T. Heather N (Ed.), International handbook of Alcohol Dependence and Problems (pp. 605-626). London: John Wiley & Sons.