Binge drinking takes hold for Irish teens

With exam students preparing to celebrate, the results of their binge drinking are taking their toll, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL in the Irish Times.

THIS WEEK and next is often seen as party time for both Junior and Leaving Certificate students. It’s a time when some will go on their first overseas holiday without their parents, or are allowed let off as much steam as they like following months of studying.

And, if a recent European School Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (ESPAD) report on teenage behaviour across Europe is correct, Irish teenagers will binge drink more than their European counterparts.

Half of all 15-16 year olds surveyed in Ireland said they had consumed alcohol in the previous 30 days, which is 7 per cent below the European average.

But when asked how much they had drunk on their last drinking day, the survey showed that Irish teenagers drank significantly above the European norm (Irish teenagers consumed 6.7cl of pure alcohol and the EU norm was 5.1cl). Drug use also is significantly down among Irish teenagers surveyed, with 19 per cent of students admitting to illicit drug use in the last 30 days, a drop from 37 per cent in 1995.

Ireland had one of the highest rates of parents (4 per cent) who refused their children permission to participate in the study and answer questions about their alcohol and drug use. This might be indicative of a more general reluctance among Irish society to talk candidly about drug and alcohol behaviour. For example, in how many kitchens and school classrooms will there have been a genuine, honest and open dialogue around alcohol use among adults and teenagers in recent weeks?

Dr Fiona Weldon, who as clinical director of the Rutland Centre in Dublin deals with the issues that teenage engagement with alcohol and drugs can lead to in later life, is concerned that the ESPAD survey results may lead to a relaxation in the focus on teenage drinking and drug use.

“The thing that struck me was that we should still be concerned about binge drinking patterns among our 15-18 age group and the impact this is having on their brain development. For example, one study in the US on the brain of adolescent binge drinkers, showed that the part of the brain to do with memory is 10 per cent smaller than adolescents who don’t drink.”

One of the things the Rutland Centre is seeing is that many young teenagers are becoming cross-addicted, both to alcohol and drugs, at a younger age.

While drug use among teens, such as cannabis, has reduced, according to the ESPAD survey, front-line workers are seeing a rise in the use of prescription medicines, especially codeine-type pills.

According Dr Weldon, they see people at the centre from the age of 18 but know a lot of them will start using from the age of 12 onwards.

“Some tell us they raid the drinks cabinet from the age of nine, or are taking their parents’ valium from that age. Really what is not being addressed is why this is happening. We see it as self-esteem issues, with youngsters having a lack of confidence in themselves, and the amount of depression among young people is concerning.

“A lot of time it is untreated and teenagers are self-medicating with substance. We see kids who were bullied calm themselves with alcohol and by mixing it with other substances. Evolved primary care teams were meant to be in place to pick up these issues but they aren’t.”

Dr Weldon said adults had a huge role to play in leading by example and ensuring their own engagement with alcohol is done in a responsible and mature way in front of teenagers.

“How young people learn about alcohol is through social modelling. Also, I think we need to educate kids more around the effects of alcohol and how it can be dangerous.

“With parents, there is a sort of collusiveness and guilt and shame around their own drinking.

“It is very hard as a parent to be pontificating to their children when their own behaviour is questionable.”

Dr Weldon issues a note of caution regarding the results of the survey, which relies on self-reporting from the participants. Clients in the Rutland Centre when asked about their drinking behaviour tended to underestimate volumes.

The most worrying aspect of the ESPAD survey and the challenge for society, according to Dr Weldon, is that binge drinking among teenagers is now firmly established. This can exacerbate pre-existing emotional and psychological issues and lead to a host of other health difficulties during a key development phase in a person’s life.

She also expressed frustration at the lack of residential treatment beds for teenagers in difficulty and the costs associated with alcohol treatment. Currently medical cards do not cover many of those costs.

So, what kind of actions should parents of students take in the coming days and weeks in relation to their teenagers socialising?

“I think one of the main things is to have an open conversation about alcohol and also about alcohol and moderation. I think parents should talk about the risks associated with being drunk. Binge drinking is a recipe for disaster. Placing some responsibility on young persons for their health is a positive way to approach it.”


Half of all Irish 15 and 16 year olds surveyed had consumed alcohol in the previous 30 days.

This is 7 per cent below the European average.

Two out of every five Irish students reported having five or more drinks in one sitting over the previous 30 days.

Average alcohol consumption on the last drinking day among Irish teenagers was 6.7cl of pure alcohol, compared with 5.1cl across the rest of Europe.

In relation to illicit drug use, 37 per cent of 15-16 year olds had tried drugs in 1995 but only 19 per cent in 2011.

In most countries surveyed, the same number of boys and girls were found to drink in bars and nightclubs. But Ireland and Monaco were the exception where there were more girls.

Ireland had one of the highest rates (4 per cent) of parents refusing children permission to participate in the study.