by Greta Yeoman
While 70% of New Zealanders with an alcohol use disorder will develop it by age 25, many are not aware of the impact of their drinking, South Canterbury addiction advocates say.
Timaru Salvation Army addictions caseworker Glenn Smith said because many people aged 18-25 were “still experimenting” with alcohol and other drugs, often with the encouragement of their peers, they probably did not realise when their drinking reached a “hazardous” stage.
The 2017-18 New Zealand Health Survey, released last month, found almost a third of New Zealanders aged 18-24 had “hazardous drinking” habits.
This compared with a quarter of those aged 25-34.
Research by Dr Charlene Rapsey, of the Dunedin School of Medicine, found half of those who developed an alcohol use disorder did so by age 20, while 70% did so by age 25.
Her paper, released in October, also found their drinking started in high school and transitioned rapidly from consuming alcohol to having an alcohol use disorder.
“[This research shows] resources to prevent and to treat alcohol use disorders need to focus on those under 25 years of age in particular” – Dr Charlene Rapsey
“Considering many teenagers leave high school at 18 . . . 79% of 18-year-olds had used alcohol, with 57% regularly drinking.”
Mr Smith said while people could say, “I don’t drink every day”, it also affected people’s ability to stop drinking once they started, whether they engaged in dangerous behaviour – like drink-driving or getting into fights – while under the influence of alcohol or if people felt regret about what they had done while drinking and then drank to drown out the memory.
“There’s a lot of shame about addiction.
“[But] it’s not really them, it’s the disease.”
AMPSS 101 (Addictions, Mental Health Peer Support Services) manager Jan Andrews said while most of the people coming through the doors in the 18-24 age bracket were dealing with drug addictions, people often began to realise in their early to mid-20s if they had problems with alcohol as well.
“People are becoming more aware and being able to seek help and support.”
Parents could seek support for their child through Family Mental Health Support (FAMHS) or through the South Canterbury District Health Board’s crisis line or Drug and Alcohol service, Mrs Andrews said.
Mr Smith said most people would only self-refer to an addictions service if they woke up one morning, decided they needed to quit drinking and sought out a service. Otherwise it would usually be through the encouragement of a friend or family member.
He encouraged people to “learn about you and your limitations”.
Dr Rapsey’s research backed up the reported delay in South Canterbury residents recognising their issues with alcohol.
Her report, which used data from the New Zealand Mental Health Survey, found that people lived with alcohol use disorders for a long time before they experienced remission; 45% of people still met criteria for an alcohol disorder after 10 years.
She said while alcohol was commonly enjoyed by many people and only a minority developed an alcohol use disorder, the negative consequences of such a disorder could be severe and long-lasting.
To determine “hazardous drinking” in the 2017-18 New Zealand Health Survey, the questions about alcohol use came from the 10-item Alcohol Use Disorders test. The questionnaire covers three aspects of alcohol use: alcohol consumption, dependence and adverse consequences.
“This research highlights our collective responsibility to each other; by reducing the drivers of overall levels of consumption, we have the opportunity to reduce harm to others.”
Dr Rapsey suggested “relatively small inconveniences” including limiting the availability of alcohol and putting higher prices on alcohol could have “significant influences” on reducing alcohol-related harms.
Her study suggested 16% of the almost 13,000 participants in the New Zealand Mental Health Survey had developed an alcohol disorder. However, the 2017-18 New Zealand Health Survey suggested that a likely figure was closer to 20%.
The largest group of hazardous drinkers were aged 18-24, totalling just under 32%. This broke down to 38% of men aged 18-24 and 25% of women.
“This latest research also indicates that resources to prevent and to treat alcohol use disorders need to focus on those under 25 years of age in particular,” she said.