Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs: Everyone is Not Doing It
On Tuesday 20 April, Paul Dillon, Education Consultant from DARTA (Drug and Alcohol Research and Training) spoke with the Year 10, 11 and 12 group levels; he also presented at a Parent Evening for the combined Grammar Schools and spent some time reflecting with the Health Studies and Student Care staff on what constitutes best practice in the delivery of drug and alcohol education to young people.
In this BGGS News item, I seek to relay in tone and rhythm the message of these sessions as they have already proven to be a platform for some useful discussions in Grammar families recently. It is also important that I communicate that the approach used, both by Mr Dillon and the Health Studies Faculty is that, while we do everything in our power to equip our students with the skills to keep themselves and each other safe (Harm Minimisation), the central message is not that of normalising extreme behaviour. In fact, the statistics Mr Dillon so wisely showed at regular intervals throughout the presentations demonstrated that the young people of Australia, for the most part, are making wise decisions in regard to alcohol and drug use. He was able to promote positive rather than negative social norms by interspersing very important messages in regard to safety with statistics; for example, young people in Australia today are half as likely as 20 years ago to use cannabis. However, these are not the teenagers who find themselves featured in the media or discussed on the gossip grapevine, but they are indeed the majority. The fact that he was able to deliver the following message in regard to safety, while normalising sensible decision-making, was deeply affirming to students who do not regularly find themselves in some of the situations described in the following text. It is vital that this context is in place when discussing alcohol and drug use—statistics, research and experience tell us: “Everyone is not doing it!”
It was clear from the outset that Mr Dillon was going to have a strong impact on his audiences. As a trained teacher he has been working in the area of drug and alcohol education for 25 years and he speaks constantly to school groups across Australia and to a number of media outlets. In addition to this, he works “on the ground” at events such as dance parties and music festivals.
Sadly, he is often invited to speak to the media or go to schools after a tragic event has occurred involving teenagers and alcohol or drugs. He provided us with the statistic that every weekend one young person dies and in 50 per cent of the cases it is as a result of alcohol. So, he told our students, every Monday somewhere around Australia, a school principal must stand in front of his or her school and tell them: “We have lost a student”. He has been to 13 schools where young people have died and in five cases these were girls. None of these girls were by themselves—and in a number of cases they were in a home being “looked after” by their friends who had not even realised initially that their friend had died.
Mr Dillon explored this further, not only by using statistics and knowledge of current research, but also by using the narrative of his own experience in speaking to families whose lives have been so affected. He told the girls that research demonstrates that boys die from alcohol poisoning caused by sculling or drinking shots; they pass out and never wake up. Often someone has said: “Let him sleep it off”, so the boy is not watched and does not receive the emergency care that he so desperately needs. Of course, some boys fall over and smash their heads and, as we all know from the media, the lives of others are changed forever because they are touched by the terrible violence brought on by alcohol use.
Girls, however, tend to die differently as a consequence of excessive alcohol intake; they drink so much that they pass out, vomit and then choke on their vomit often in the company of their friends. Mr Dillon relayed to the girls how a girl was placed in the recovery position by her friends in her home but they placed her backwards into the lounge and so they did not see her vomit and they did not see her choke or die. Her parents were in a room two doors away.
The girls were clearly surprised when Mr Dillon told them that in situations like this boys generally looked after each other more effectively than girls. This was initially difficult to believe until he linked how girls operate socially in adolescence to the management of a friend who is affected by alcohol. It is true that girls “travel in packs” at this age and when one of their friends needs help they all swoop in and “look after” her in a diffuse way. However, the problem and the potential for tragedy lies in the form of the help; with girls this often takes the form of hair stroking, “ah-ing” and trying to prevent the girl from embarrassing herself further by being as discreet as possible and playing the situation down, with all the friends “caring”, but no one girl taking real responsibility to properly assess the situation, provide leadership and make the necessary hard decisions.
Mr Dillon told the girls that they must call an ambulance the SECOND that:
1. A person is unconscious and cannot be wakened
2. Is cold, clammy or blue around the mouth
3. Is taking less than one breath every ten seconds
He emphasised to them that the ambulance personnel do not call the police unless the situation is dangerous and he told them how fortunate they are in Queensland to have “free” ambulance service. He was pleased that our girls knew not only about the recovery position and 000, but also about 112 which is the international emergency number. For this, we must thank the work of the Health Studies Faculty and the programmes they deliver in Lifesaving, First Aid, Safety and CPR. It is worth communicating to adolescents that the “trouble” they may get into because an adult discovers that they have been drinking, or perhaps being in places or situations where they should not be, is far less than a lifetime carrying a feeling of culpability as a consequence of trying to hide or manage a situation which has spiralled beyond their control.
So, how do young people know when they must call for help because someone they are with is not merely intoxicated but actually poisoned by alcohol and therefore experiencing a life-threatening situation? Mr Dillon told the girls that after 25 years he had just recently come up with a simple, effective idea to help young people to make good, quick decisions in regard to this. He told them to get a hard-backed, armless kitchen chair—and usually a chair like this is around at places young people may be having parties or “gatherings”—and to place the friend they are concerned about on it. He instructed them that one of them should then sit directly in front of their friend and carefully observe. If the friend cannot sit on this chair without falling sideways or forwards, their chin drops to their chest and they don’t respond to clapping or the calling of their name, and they cannot speak or say their own name, he categorically told the girls to dial 000 immediately and that under no circumstances should this person be left alone “to sleep it off”. He forbade them ever to place an intoxicated person on their back; he showed them images of the recovery position, and explained what the paramedics do to maintain life in this situation.
It was both fascinating and distressing to see that our students share some false beliefs about ways to help a friend sober up with students from schools all over Australia. The fact that three central “methods” which seem to have emerged in this mythology have, in some cases, contributed to the disfigurement or death of young people is deeply upsetting. These are three of the key beliefs alive and well in teenage world.
1. Eating bread after consuming alcohol will help sober up and reduce hangover. (Eating bread can, and has, led to death by choking)
2. Putting someone under a cold shower will help sober them up. (Taking an intoxicated person to a bathroom is to take them to what for them is the most dangerous room in the house owing to the glass, hard floor and surfaces and the lack of physical control)
3. Drinking a lot of water can help sober someone up. (Force feeding large quantities of water can, and has, led to a form of internal drowning).
Mr Dillon posed the question to the girls: “Why do people drink?” and explored then the vulnerability of girls when they have been drinking. It is the case that this is the first generation where a form of acceptance of public drunkenness of girls and women seems to be rising. It is also the first generation where girls drink vodka and the damage to the developing livers of these girls, if they continue, will severely reduce their life span. Mr Dillon made clear something that is obvious: girls who have been drinking are susceptible to sexual assault. We know from the statistics that our frame of reference must be that girls who constantly behave like this are in the minority; we know also that young people who are in a group which uses illicit drugs are an unusual group, another minority group, with regular cannabis users or “pot-heads” being considered as “very boring”. In fact, more young people are deciding not to drink at all, or very little, and there are in fact, in peak times of peer group pressure (Year 10 and 11), many young people who “pretend drink” and, like us, want nothing to do with illicit drugs. However, the life of every young person is very precious, obviously to you as parents, but also to us in our life work in secondary schools of supporting the development and learning of each one of our students. African tribal wisdom informs us that it takes a village to raise a child. It is vital for our community that we as adults join with each other to care deeply and wisely for the teenagers in our urban village; that we model respect and responsibility and we teach our children to look out for each other and put aside hasty, uninformed judgement and lazy stereotyping but think carefully about how best to respond to the challenges inherent in the human condition.
So, what is the practical advice for you as a parent? Paul Dillon would suggest that you read the current research on alcohol and the teenage brain which suggests that young people should not drink at all. His advice given on the Parent Evening fell within the parameters of the traditional wisdom of all cultures in the rearing of teenagers and that is not to shirk responsibility and not to try to be “a friend” or “cool” or “liked” but to actively, really parent. He finished with these tips:
1. Expect a great deal from your child
2. Be willing to be part of the solution
3. Say “no”
4. Know your child intimately
5. Treat your partner well
6. Hitting your child does not work
7. Actions speak louder than words
8. Give your child respect as they grow older
9. Listen – really
10. Tell your daughter she is great