System failing teen alcohol issues

THE Lismore court appearance of a 14-year-old boy with liver damage for a string of offences involving alcohol has alarmed experts and raised questions of whether alcohol abusers are getting younger.

Dr Sue Page, director of the North Coast Medical Education Collaboration, described the situation as distressing.

“In my mind it indicates the failure of several systems – the family system, the school system and social system,” she said.

“It should not have got to this stage. He should have been picked up sooner.”

With overwhelming evidence now showing teenage alcohol consumption can have devastating consequences for brain and physiological development, Dr Page said there was no safe way for children or teenagers to consume alcohol.

“There is also good evidence now that alcohol negatively affects brain development right up to 24 years of age,” she said.

“Also, if you drink before the age of 18 you are far more likely to develop a drinking problem later.

“Families that normalise alcohol really should question their association of alcohol with happy party times.”

Dr Page explained how children are still establishing normal hormone patterns and therefore metabolise alcohol unpredictably.

“One evening they might be fine with two or three drinks, and the next they’re vomiting and passing out on the same amount,” she said.

“Adding to these issues, when young people drink to excess with peers rather than adults, they are often not surrounded by people with their best interests at heart – whereas adults might suggest ‘you’ve had enough’ or offer you a lift home.”

Apart from the physical damage of alcohol abuse, Dr Page described a complex interrelationship of emotional, psychological and secondary factors.

“Anybody drinking heavily will also have abnormal nutrition, plus vomiting and diarrhoea, which can drastically reduce vitamin B which causes nerve cell damage,” she said.

“And there can be various infections grinding away as well.

“At 14 years of age, it is unlikely that all this boy’s liver damage was caused just by alcohol.”

A spokesman for Alcohol Anonymous said AA groups in the United States were seeing kids as young 10 to 12 turning up, whereas that was still out of the ordinary for Australia.

“Although we don’t conduct studies or research, there is anecdotal evidence that more and more younger people are coming to AA meetings,” he said.

“People traditionally sought help in AA in their 40s, but we are seeing that reducing.

“We do have literature for teenagers, but that is more to sow the seed that if they get into trouble down the track there is help available.”

Youth worker Deb Pearse, who has run the Byron Streetcruise program for eight years, said she saw it becoming more and more of an issue.

“Sometimes I just look at them and think, my God, you’re just a child,” she said.

“I don’t know whether kids that age can be alcoholics, but they certainly can drink alcoholically.

“It’s an incredibly complex issue. Sometimes it’s parents and family, but it’s also society and culture. We want someone to blame, but it’s just not that simple.”

Dr Page said there was new evidence to indicate increasing abnormalities of serotonin in many people today, which was a theory for addiction, and which could be treated.

She personally believes the more metropolitan society becomes, the less we care about individuals.

“That process leaves isolated individuals very vulnerable,” she said.

“It’s not a case of asking how your society can change, but what you are going to change so we can have a better society.”

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