Wednesday 16 October 2019

Katie Byrne: We've been shaming problem drinkers for years - and it doesn't work

Katie Byrne. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Katie Byrne. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Alcopop drinkers of the 90s have turned to fine wine
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Another day, another health campaign aimed at middle-aged drinkers. The alcopop-drinking teenagers of the 90s are all grown up now, but according to health authorities, their drinking habits haven't become more sensible with age. They've simply replaced the Bacardi Breezer drink promotions in the nightclub for the delights of French wine in the privacy of their sitting rooms.

Middle-aged drinkers - women especially - are now the group most targeted by alcohol awareness campaigns. The trouble is that public health authorities don't know how to get through to them.

They've tried fear (alcohol causes cancer) and guilt (is your drinking having an effect on your child?) but the response has been negligible at best. In fact, when researchers at the University of Adelaide studied the impact of emotional anti-alcohol campaigns on middle-aged problem drinkers, they concluded "health was either described as a minor concern or not considered at all".

Health authorities need to take a harder line, they added, by focusing "on the risk of behaving inappropriately" and "the possible loss of respect". Simply put, they think it's time we started telling middle-aged problem drinkers that they behaved like an absolute gobsh*te in the pub last night. Put even more simply, they think it's time we stopped using fear and guilt as emotional triggers by resorting to good old-fashioned shame instead.

From a short-term point of view, it's not the worst idea. Giving a problem drinker a play-by-play account of what actually happened during their black-out will, of course, have more impact than, say, a lecture on liver disease. Who knows, they might even rein it in for a week.

From a long-term point of view, however, shame is a lousy motivator. It makes people hide away from social scrutiny and it fundamentally feeds addiction.

Even alcohol treatment centres are cottoning on to this. There was a time when patients' friends and family were invited in to confront the addict with a long list of their misdemeanors. Nowadays, more progressive treatment centres are questioning the merits of radical confrontation. After all, it can be hard to recover and get on with your life when you have been told that you've ruined the lives of those you love most.

Cultural norms pose another issue. It's one thing being told you made a fool of yourself by someone who has a responsible approach to alcohol; it's quite another thing being confronted by someone who can put away 30 drinks during a night out yet somehow stay standing.

This leads to an alcohol omertà of sorts among heavy drinkers. We don't confront the people who are close to the edge because it might put our own behaviour under the spotlight. The problem drinker will still ask if they "did anything bad" last night, yet listen to the tone of their voice and you'll notice they're requesting a pardon rather than a play-by-play. Besides, we don't really do post-mortems in Ireland. We do "grand". Cried in the bathroom? "You were grand." Rowed with the barman. "Seriously, you were grand." Tried to get out of a moving taxi. "Honest to God, you were absolutely grand."

Americans like to 'stage' interventions with a This Is Your Life-worthy line-up of friends and family. It helps, of course, that they were brought up in a culture of therapy and brainwashed by the 'inalienable right' to the pursuit of happiness.

We Irish, on the other hand, were brought up in a culture of secrecy and repression. We aren't comfortable with uncomfortable conversations and the very idea of an intervention breaks us out in a cold sweat. That's why the Irish intervention is non-vocal. We raise an eyebrow or we purse our lips. If we're feeling especially brave, we might tell the problem drinker that they were "absolutely grand" in a tone of voice that suggests they absolutely were not.

Then, when the non-verbal communication and subliminal messaging doesn't work - as is generally the case - we start to subtly ostracise the problem drinker by excluding them from social events or pressing them into taxis before the witching hour begins.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide think it's time we started shaming problem drinkers. The truth, however, is we've been doing it for years. And it doesn't work.

Irish Independent

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