Dealing with alcohol dependence
Health & lifestyles reporter Jenelle investigates ways that you can help someone suffering from alcohol dependence.
When I think of an alcoholic, it's the Homer Simpson and Barney Gumble type of character that immediately springs to mind: quick to anger, surrounded by empty bottles and the tendency to burp every two seconds. Not all alcoholics fit this description, though.
This - along with the stigma and stereotypes associated with it - is why health professionals in Australia avoid using the term "alcoholic".
A hidden problem
National Policy Manager at the Australian Drug Foundation, Geoff Munro, has had 20 years experience in the field. He says health professionals in Australia prefer to use the term "alcohol dependence".
Mr Munro says 80 percent of Australians drink, and as a general rule of thumb ten percent of drinkers are alcohol dependent. However, he points to research reported by Professor Jake Najman at the 2008 Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs Conference, from the University of Queensland, who argues that of the 80 percent of Australians who drink, 30 percent are impaired in one way or another from drinking.
For example, they may not being able to fulfil social responsibilities like going to work or family events. Najman argues that the problem is a lot more widespread than previously thought.
"Because drinking is so widespread and common in Australia, many people don't see it as a sign of alcohol dependency," Mr Munro says. "But dependency on alcohol can lead to work problems, drink driving, financial stress, accidents and conflict within the family which could even trigger the breakup of a family."
Symptoms of alcohol dependency
Alcohol dependency is measured on a scale ranging from mild to severe. Not everyone who is dependent on alcohol will experience all of the following symptoms:
- Tolerance - the need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to have the desired effect
- Craving - needing to drink every day
- Loss of control - unable to stop or reduce alcohol intake
- Withdrawal symptoms - feeling sick and vomiting, shaking in the morning, stomach pain, feeling numb and tingling, feelings of confusion
- Drinking despite the knowledge of the resulting social and physical problems
Alcohol and other drugs counsellor Jill Grossman, from Cobaw Community Health Services in the Macedon Ranges, says alcohol abuse impacts dramatically on families both emotionally and physically, and also increases the chance of car accidents.
"It can be extremely difficult to live with a person dependent on alcohol because of the unpredictability of the person with an alcohol problem. Friends and family are constantly walking on eggshells waiting for an explosion."
"Doing something one day may be fine, but doing the same thing the next day may lead to a tirade of verbal and physical abuse," Ms Grossman says.
She advises a person living with someone who is dependent on alcohol to confront the situation and urges them to seek medical treatment rather than sweeping the issue under the carpet.
Tips for helping someone who is alcohol dependent
Here are a few basic tips for ways to help someone who is alcohol dependent:
- Explain to your friend or family member that you are concerned about their behaviour and suggest that they seek advice from a health professional - their local community health centre or GP will be able to help
- Don't confront them when they are drunk (you may be at risk of violence) - wait till they are sober and not preoccupied
- Don't initiate the conversation alone - make sure you have support (for example, your mum or dad or partner's mum or dad) and sit down together to talk to the person you are concerned about
- Be aware that they may resist or deny that there is a problem (if this happens you should seek advice from a health worker, doctor or a family friend - you may feel confused, worried or threatened yourself, and need someone to talk to)
- Try not to be judgemental about their drinking habits - instead be supportive and understanding
- Provide all the support you can without putting yourself in any danger
Mr Munro stresses that it is vital to seek medical advice and not go cold turkey.
"Withdrawing from alcohol can be harder than withdrawing from heroin. It can be fatal. You can die from seizures," he says.
People who are mild or moderately dependent on alcohol should seek medical advice to receive counselling or support in order to change their behaviour. They won't necessarily have to have medication, although people with severe alcohol dependency may need to detox under medical supervision and use prescribed medication.
Mr Munro says it is important not to drink around people who are recovering or in detox. He suggests keeping the person busy in a way that doesn't involve drinking.
Alcohol abuse is often not noticed or politely ignored because drinking is legal and socially acceptable. If you think someone you know is alcohol dependent, it is important to tackle the problem and help save their life.
For more information
The following are some organisations that offer support to people with alcohol dependency, and their families.
- DirectLine (new window) provides 24-hour, seven-day counselling, information and referral for people with drug and alcohol problems. Call any time on 1800 888 236.
- Al-Anon/Alateen (new window) offers support for friends and families of people who are problem drinkers.
- Youth Substance Abuse Service (new window) is a statewide community service providing services for young people between 12 and 21 who are experiencing problems related to alcohol or other drugs. Call any time on 1800 014 446.
You can also get help from your local community health centre, or ask your local council for more information on services and organisations in your area.
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