The dangers of alcohol abuse are well documented, and there is no shortage of adverts that highlight the risks of drinking alcohol, particularly around driving  under the influence.  It is even more prevalent during peak holiday seasons, highlighting the link between alcohol consumption and road accidents.

By Rhys Evans, MD of ALCO-Safe

Despite the dangers associated with excessive drinking,  alcoholism is still prevalent in our society. Recent statistics are hard to come by, especially around the extent of the problem  – likely due to the fact that alcoholism is a stigmatised problem that few are willing to admit to. However, there are a few studies which paint a dire picture, such as BMC Medicine’s report on alcohol related mortality rates (approximately 62,300 adults died from alcohol-attributable causes in South Africa in 2015).

The Times reported that one in seven adults admits to being binge-drinkers, consuming more alcohol than average in a single sitting.  However, this is countered by a study conducted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) which claims that excise duties on alcohol quadrupled the amount of admitted alcoholic beverages consumed in 2014/15, pointing to the problem being far worse than studies can accurately conclude.

A study that doesn’t seem to exist is one that outlines the causes behind alcohol abuse, how common they are and what can be done to minimise these causes, effectively reducing alcoholism.

According to an article published by Talbott Recovery, part of the Foundations Recovery Network (FRN) family of treatment centres in the US, alcoholism is a result of a combination of genetic, psychological, environmental and social factors. The articles cite the top five causes of alcohol abuse as stressful environments, drinking at an early age, mental health issues, combining alcohol and medication and family history (of alcoholism).

While little can be done to address the causes of family history, or drinking from a young age after the fact, the other causes can certainly be addressed.


Stressful environments

Work is considered one of the top causes of stress. Whether it’s deadlines, making targets or simply being unhappy in your job, your work environment contributes heavily to the amount of stress you feel. Furthermore, many people tend to treat stress by drinking heavily. This tends to compound the stress, as excessive alcohol consumption commonly results in inattention and can hamper productivity. There are better ways to manage stress.

People should take breaks away from their desk or workstation, frequently. Breaks help to clear the head and recharge you to continue working. For more stressful environments, it’s important to communicate, however, not all workplaces or hierarchies allow for easy airing of grievances or concerns.

In such cases, it may be worthwhile to initiate or appeal for an anonymous platform where employees are encouraged to talk freely about their stresses and are responded to accordingly. This does not mean that all grievances or stresses can, or will, result in action, however, a place to simply unburden does help employees to feel heard.

We are moving towards a time where working hours are less prescriptive and more flexible, and this is generally due to the budding realisation that there is little correlation between the number of hours worked and the number of productive hours worked. Employers can help keep working hours down by assessing how many of those are productive and scaling back as required, wherever possible. They can also ensure employees in highly stressful positions receive enough leave and are offered support, or even therapy.

Employers can also make use of discreet alcohol testing which will give them an indication of alcohol consumption and abuse, and then provide for mechanisms to help people who test positive, either through rehabilitative programs, or through in-house therapy and support.

Outside of the workplace, managing stress is a little easier. Most resources prescribe enough rest, exercise and healthy eating habits to help curb stress. However, it’s still important to talk and find a way to deal with anxiety.


Mental illness

Alcohol is a known depressant, yet many people start relying on the “buzz” or “feel good factor” of drinking. The term, “finding happiness at the bottom of a bottle” has its roots in people drinking to feel good. However, alcohol dependency becomes an issue when people constantly seek that good feeling, only to discover it becomes increasingly elusive the more frequently they drink, as their systems build up a resistance to alcohol.

As a continuation, the alcohol then makes them more depressed than they were, and it becomes a never-ending cycle.

In cases of mental illness, alcohol use should be discouraged. Where people with mental illnesses do drink, it should be with care and consideration, and a full awareness of the potential negative effects of alcohol on their condition. Medical professionals, medications and information sites or brochures should ensure that the consequences and impacts of alcohol use are clearly explained and understood by any patients and people suffering from mental illnesses, regardless of their severity.


Mixing medication with alcohol

Some medicines can increase the toxic effects of alcohol on the body, which is why most medications print warnings on their package inserts about use with alcohol. However, people still continue to drink – and heavily – when on medication. Some even seek the mind-altering effects of doing so and end up dependant on alcohol.

It’s important that medication users are educated and made aware of the potential consequences of consuming alcohol with medication, some of which can include severe physical harm and even death.


Curbing alcoholism

With regards to a family history of drinking, people should take time to understand their family history and genetic predisposition to alcoholism in order to ensure they drink responsibly, with awareness of their propensity for alcohol abuse. Simple awareness that a history of alcoholism in the family can ensure that people curb their own drinking habits to avoid falling into a similar fate.

Whatever the cause, alcohol abuse can be avoided. Between governments, medical facilities and the media, we can paint a less glamourous image of alcohol consumption and begin to show the real picture of alcoholism and its effects, and how we can work, as a community and a country, to prevent its continuing rise.


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