Working to reduce alcohol harm

Teenagers – you can have a good time without consuming alcohol

A survey shows that 16-25 year olds are far more sensible than their parents. Caomhan Keane gets a handle on Generation Zero.

From the Irish Examiner

GENERATION Y ”” that’s those of us who check the 25 and over box, partied through the boom on a perpetual drink fest, imbibing a record 14.3 litres of alcohol in 2001.

But studies conducted both at home and abroad suggest the number of young people who binge drink has started to fall. So has the number of recreational drug users. While the one figure that is rising is the number of those who’ve abstained from alcohol all together.

’Generation Zero’ have seemingly found the antacid to settle the dark, liquid underbelly of the Celtic Tiger.

True, there have been a handful of deaths directly connected to the NekNominate craze. ’Killer’ ecstasy is headline news and the Internet collectively rolled its eyes ”” and stomachs, as one young farmer poured beer into his welly, then drank it, all because a friend had dared him to.

But there’s been a 50% drop in young people smoking, no marked increase in marijuana smokers, while the number of people under the age of 18 seeking treatment for heroin addiction in Dublin has dropped from 200 in 1998 to just four in the present day, according to Dr Bobby Smyth, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, who is on the board of Alcohol Action Ireland.

Unprotected sex is out of vogue, which, in turn, has lead to a decrease in teenage pregnancy. While, of the 90% of teenagers who now sit the Leaving Cert, half go on to college.

Ironically, social-media and peer pressure, often blamed for making life harder for today’s youth, has had a role to play in helping us turn the corner.

“If you go out on a night out and you act irresponsibly, it will be plastered all over Facebook the next morning,” says Lisa Buckley, 22, from Cork IT. She launched the #DontKidYourself campaign with classmate Emma Hanley, 24, as part of a competition run by drinkaware.ie to highlight responsible drinking. “Your generation wasn’t at risk from this level of exposure. We constantly have to be aware of how we are being portrayed.”

Cases like the “KPMG Girl” or the “Slane Girl“, who were collectively referred to as “the Hashtag Girls” by one young woman I spoke to, have left a scar. Gone are the golden days of just waking up with the fear. Today’s youth face the very real threat of waking up with having the proof shared with all your friends and family via Instagram or YouTube.

Cassie Delaney, 24, is the Coordinating Ambassador for Ireland for One Young World, a not-for-profit organisation that gathers together the brightest young people and empowers them to make lasting connections to create positive change. “When you see the examples made by other people on social media you think, ’I don’t want to come across like that’ and you take steps not to get into that state. There’s no positive. The girl in the rugby threesome video, she lost her job, she had to move to London.”

“Information and material goes up so fast,” says Emma. “One of our lecturers showed us how he could view things we thought were private on Facebook, which means perspective employers can see them too.”

But social media presents benefits beyond possessing a slightly Stasi like threat to peoples privacy.

“After a couple of those NekNominations appeared,” Lisa says, “people got on to those taking part directly, through Twitter or Facebook telling them, ’you are just an embarrassment’ or expressing their own shame for getting involved. By getting their personal experience out there, people can help others from making the mistakes they’ve made.”

16-year old Danny Eggers from Kilkenny was recently voted Host of the Year at the No Name Club Regional Awards. The club, a collection of groups nationwide run by 15-18 year olds for teenagers, are a drink and drug free environment. As a student of St Kieran’s, the current all Ireland Schools Hurling Champions, he has noticed the success of peer pressure in keeping schoolboys off the sauce. “The manager is strict on them, but they stay off the booze because they don’t want to fall behind. Nearly the whole school plays hurling and because they know the guy beside them isn’t drinking, they won’t drink either, as they want to be as good as him on the pitch.”

The recession had a role to play. Young people are spending more time researching careers and engaging in further study because of the lack of opportunities in the market place. “All the media comment about the possibility of getting work being slim and remote has focused this generation,” says Gerry Flynn, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, “They’re not as exposed to the workplace due to the difficulty getting summer or part time jobs. The chances of going straight out of the education system into gainful employment is no longer an option keeping people in school, no matter how reluctantly.”

“Alcohol has also been discussed increasingly across Irish society as a problem,” says Dr Bobby Smyth, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, who serves on the board of Alcohol Action Ireland. “People’s perceptions have shifted, associating it with deaths on the road and suicide. They’re joining the dots.”

But before we hit the virgin cocktails in celebration, there are stark truths to be told. There’s been a 275% increase in 15-24 year olds presenting with liver cirrhosis ”” what was once an old man’s disease. Alcohol-related disorders were the third most common reason for admission to psychiatric hospitals. While studies on suicide ”” the leading cause of death in 15-24 year old men ”” found that 50% of those who had taken their own life had abused alcohol in the months before hand.

The number of people smoking marijuana hasn’t increased, but the strength of weed has, so drug services are noticing a rise in the people suffering from related mental health problems. And in a YouTube video Emma and Lisa used as part of their campaign, Dr Colin Gleeson, a Cork-based GP with 30 years’ experience, noted seeing a record numbers of girls coming in looking for the morning-after pill, or boys being treated for STDs, with no recollection of who they slept with.

What can be done?

Conor Cullen of Alcohol Action Ireland contrasts the relatively small reduction in teenage drinking (1%) with the massive reduction in smoking, which has almost halved for the same age group. “We regulated smoking. It became hugely expensive, cigarettes were not available widely and they weren’t advertised.”

Danny and Cassie noted the power of having direct access to victims of drink and drug abuse had as a deterrent. While an adult facilitator of No Name Club notes the important role such organisations can have in reducing binge drinking. “Once you go out and you have a good time without alcohol, it takes away the message that you need to go and have a drink. What we are seeing is that when our kids do drink they don’t feel like they have to do it to excess.”

“This millennial thing,” Cassie concludes, “the belief we don’t work for any thing, that we are entitled. Twenty teens go volunteering doesn’t make good news. But there are some incredible young people in this country at the moment and I think its important to stay focused on that.”