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Alcohol Awareness Month: What You Need to Know

Alcohol Awareness Month: What You Need to Know

Although Stand Together isn’t an ‘anti-drug campaign’ per se, we do discuss substance use disorders and their impact on the individuals that develop them. Alcohol is everywhere-on TV and social media and, for many youth, in their homes. It’s widely accepted because it’s legal and readily available and it’s heavily romanticized as a ‘right of passage,’ the ‘college way,’ or (and yes, I’m lame and use this word) ‘the cool thing to do.’ But the reality of the situation is that alcohol can be just as dangerous and deadly as any other substance and just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s safe or can’t become a problem.

I’m not going to bore you with a slew of statistics, but I wanted to note a few things I think are important to know about young adults and alcohol use.
-11% of all alcohol consumed is by under-aged youth
-18.6% of youth start drinking before the age of 13
-34.9% of teenagers have had a least 1 drink in the last 30 days
-25% of teen car crashes involve an impaired, underage driver
-Young adults that start drinking before age 15 are 4x more likely to develop substance use disorders than those who start at age 21
Clearly alcohol use by youth and young adults is a problem-and that’s why it’s important that we #talkaboutit!

A good place to start is to identify the reasons why people abuse (mis-use) or develop an addiction (dependence) on alcohol. Sometimes individuals may use substances to escape or deal with negative feelings, they might have an underlying mental health condition, use them to decrease social anxiety, or just to ‘fit in.’ Social and other media can pressure individuals into trying or using alcohol. The importance of getting good grades/into a good school, achieving in sports, or just the stress of everyday life can take its toll on an individual, especially if they already are at risk of developing or have an underlying mental health condition. If alcohol or other substances are readily available or someone sees them being used in the home, a young person could think that this is ‘normal’ and/or engage in the behavior, even at an earlier age. Right now, the coronavirus has people stuck at home experiencing loneliness and life changes far greater and more rapidly than ever before. The more stressors and risk factors an individual has in one’s life, the more likely they are to use alcohol and/or develop a substance use disorder. On an everyday basis we all encounter things that affect our mental health-how we deal with them is important.

Regardless of the reason an individual drinks, an alcohol use disorder can cause impairment in living, including health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home. This includes lack of control, changes in behavior, and risky use, such as binge-drinking. Just as a mental illness affects many parts of an individual’s life, so does a substance use disorder, but it occurs with the use of a substance. And, like mental health conditions, a substance use disorder of any kind (including alcohol) can stem from biological, psychological, and environmental factors. No wonder its use is so prevalent!

Mental health and substance use disorders are clearly closely related and can not only have the same causes and effects, but also some of the same signs (remember W.H.A.P.P.*). Sometimes, individuals with a mental health condition use substances to mask the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing due to the disorder. This is called self-medicating. Often, it’s easier to use substances because someone might be afraid to or unable to get help and these substances-especially alcohol-are readily available. Many individuals that ‘self-medicate’ develop substance use disorders as a result of long-term use; this is called co-morbidity, or co-occuring disorders.

A lot of youth use alcohol and many young adults start drinking in high school or college. Although ‘experimentation’ is considered a part of the human experience (and by no means are we advocating this is okay), it’s important to be able to recognize that someone could be developing a substance use disorder. There are two kinds of disorders: abuse and addiction. An individual that abuses (or misuses) alcohol may engage in binge-drinking or excessive use (‘getting drunk’), but they’re still able to stop using; they are still in control and their use can fluctuate. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences: DUIs, hang-overs/black-outs, reckless behavior, promiscuity, and violence can all occur ‘under the influence.’ When an individual experiences withdrawal and tolerance without use, they are said to have developed an addiction (or dependence). An individual at this stage will drink every day, multiple times a day, and ‘crave’ or need the substance to perform daily tasks. Addiction is considered a disease because it physically changes and individual’s body and they depend on the alcohol to function. Without alcohol, the individual could experience physical symptoms, such as over/under-sleeping, shaking, cravings, and gaining/losing wait, as well as psychological symptoms (depression, anxiety, panic, etc.).

It’s important that when you notice any or all of these signs in yourself or someone you know that you reach out to an adult you trust to get help. I know it can seem embarrassing or that you’re going ‘behind someone’s back,’ but we want people to live a successful, meaningful life-without the use of alcohol-and you could save someone’s life. The person could deny that they have an issue or are struggling; this occurs frequently. If this happens, you can still talk to an adult and be there for your friend, letting them know that you care about them, you’re there for them, and you’re there to listen whenever they’re ready to talk. (For more suggestions, check out our handout. << link)

The good news is that alcohol and other substance use disorders are treatable, there is hope, and recovery is possible. Treatment and recovery are unique to each individual and may include:
-individual or group therapy/counseling
-peer support/groups
-mental health services
-self-care (coping skills, exercise/healthy eating, spirituality, etc.)
No matter the modality, treatment addresses the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. With treatment from mental health professionals and the support from family and friends, individuals can have happy, healthy lives, YOU can connect an individual to an adult you trust to get that help and support them along their recovery journey (S.H.E.*).

Underage drinking and substance use affect everyone, just like mental health disorders. The more we educate ourselves and others, decrease the stigma associated with having these conditions and seeking help, and engage trusted adults when we’re concerned, we can prevent alcohol abuse and addiction and get individuals that are struggling the assistance they need to live a successful, meaningful life. Remember-we’re all in this together. You play an important role in connecting with your peers-take a chance, step out of your comfort zone, and reach out. You could change that person’s life!

*W.H.A.P.P. (the five signs: withdrawal, hopelessness, agitation, personality change, poor self care)
S.H.E. (how to help: provide support, hope, and encouragement) (link to handout)

Written by Danyelle, coordinator

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