Saturday, 27 April 2013

Normalising 'bad behaviour'

Watching the 'Binge drinking crisis' piece on 'A Current Affair' during the week (before you ask, I had to, it's part of my job!), many would believe that we now have more young people drinking than ever before and almost all of them go out every weekend and get absolutely smashed!

If you believe what you read in the papers and see on the TV (and why would you ever do that?), most young people have also used illicit drugs at some stage or another. In fact, all the evidence that we have says just the opposite. Most illicit drug use is now at lower rates in Australia than it was in the 1990s, with the exception of cocaine and ecstasy, and most school-based young people see drug use as pretty ‘uncool’. At a time when our younger generation are getting a ‘bad rap’ from the media it is important that we maintain some perspective.

When it comes to alcohol use, the latest ASSAD survey of school-based young people showed that we have growing numbers of students who classify themselves as 'non-drinkers' and the number of 'current drinkers' across all age groups has dropped dramatically since the mid 1980s.

Let's get something clear at the onset - I certainly don't think that everything is 'sunshine and rainbows' - we have problems, big problems around alcohol in this country, but I truly don't know how a young person who doesn't drink, or drinks very little, survives in the world today. They must feel very strange and certainly out of the loop, as the only representation of today's youth is a 'drunken yobbo' who is out to get as 'off their face' as possible!

The 'normalising' of 'bad behaviour' worries me greatly as the young people I meet in schools start to believe that drinking alcohol and getting drunk is just part of what all teenagers do. For some reading this that may have been their experience during adolescence and so this is not of great concern to them - some regarding teenage drinking simply as a 'rite of passage'. However, there is now an extra layer that is much more disturbing.

A couple of weeks ago I had just finished my presentation to a group of Year 10 students when a group of 6-8 girls approached me, some quite visibly distressed. Some of the stories I had told about young people who had got into trouble with alcohol, whether it be violence or sexual assault, and particularly the deaths had really hit home. One of the girls said that she had no idea that anyone could die from drinking. She had believed that the only real way to die from alcohol was in a car crash and that choking on your own vomit was a completely new concept to her.

I then asked the girls what harms they had observed when they had partied and their answers were terrifying. This was a group of 15 year old girls and they shared stories of seeing their friends vomiting (almost every week), passing out (most weeks) and having at least two of their friends being sexually assaulted whilst drunk. All of the girls had called for an ambulance at least once, with two of them in the group being hospitalised themselves, but none of them felt this was unusual or of great concern. When I told the girls that I never saw one of my friends unconscious after drinking when I was at school they were shocked, with one of them saying "But that's what happens when you drink ..."

For a 15 year old girl to believe that drinking to the point of passing out is 'normal' should be of great concern to all of us. For them to think that being hospitalized due to alcohol poisoning is the norm and that this is what happened to their parents and their friends is frightening!

The media bombards us with images of intoxicated young people (usually 18-25 years, not school-based young people) visiting nightlife hubs like Kings Cross with the sole purpose of getting as drunk as possible. These images are portrayed as representative of all young Australians and this is what is feeding this normalising of really dangerous behaviour. It is not normal to get so drunk that you can't walk, it is not normal to drink to the point of passing out in a public place and being hospitalized due to alcohol is certainly not the norm. This is extremely dangerous behaviour and results in a range of additional negative consequences, including death!

Over the years I have been asked to present at schools where young people have died. All bar one of these deaths occurred due to alcohol. Almost all of these deaths involved Year 10 students (15 year olds) and in the past few years, more and more of them involved young females. Almost all of them died with their best friends next to them trying to look after them, many of them, I'm sure, believing that what was happening was 'just what happens when you drink too much'.

Not all young people will drink to excess. Most will not use illicit drugs. Even so, we need to make sure that all young people, even those who don’t take drugs or drink alcohol, know what to do, if something goes wrong. They also need to be told that drinking to the point of passing out is not normal. Take the opportunity this weekend to sit with your child and discuss safety issues as well as the normalising of bad behaviour. It truly could make the difference between life and death.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Paul. I'm so glad you raised this. The majority of teens are in fact doing fabulously! Naturally we need to look out for the group who are in trouble, but going on about EVERY teen like this is truly normalisation of the behaviour. Completely agree.

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