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Teens and alcohol: an international snapshot

July 1, 2009
by Jennifer C. Jones
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Other nations step up the search to add treatment options

From his office in Sydney, Australia, psychologist Gunter Swobota routinely meets with a number of adolescent patients who are, as he puts it, “well funded.” These affluent teens can and do purchase cocaine with ease. But Swobota says the drug he is most worried about is alcohol, with abuse among youths reaching what he calls crisis proportions.

Around the world, alcohol abuse among teens is preoccupying many addiction experts. This article features the perspectives of individuals in Australia, the Netherlands and Bermuda, on the extent of the problem and the solutions being pursued.

Australia: a drinking culture

A registered psychologist in private practice, Swobota says binge drinking in particular is becoming a major problem in Australia. “Anywhere up to 30% of the teen population is doing that at some point in their adolescence,” he says. Of those binge drinkers, Swobota says 75% have consumed to a point of potential harm.

“We are a culture that is very much steeped in social drinking,” he says, with 13 and 14 the typical ages of initiation. He describes the Sydney/Melbourne area as “a very affluent, Southern California type lifestyle.”

Despite routine reports of alcohol poisoning emergencies on weekends, Swobota says Australians seem to be reluctant, almost apologetic, about addressing the issue. While the country executed an effective anti-smoking campaign, “With alcohol we have a high level of tolerance in our community,” he notes. Swobota says it's almost as if parents and others urge teens to drink responsibly, “then giggle and move on.”

He adds, “We need to sit down and have a strategic plan that looks at targeting the problem at the grass roots.”

Swobota says it's very rare for a parent to tell him that his/her child has a drinking problem. It's almost always described as a behavior problem. “The attitude toward their children quite often is, ‘They'll be fine,’” he says.

The trigger for seeking help is usually deteriorating grades at school. By then, many teens are already trying other drugs as well. “Most kids start experimenting with other drugs because they have drunk,” Swobota explains.

The Netherlands: multi-problem youths

Jean Paul Wils started his career working as the manager of a middle school in one of Amsterdam's most troubled areas. His students often set fires in the building. Determined not to close the school, he began examining his students' lives, looking for meaningful ways to reach them.

“In Amsterdam,” Wils says, “there are some 4,000 students whose parents are immigrants. Most of them have multi-level problems-poverty, broken families, stealing and drugs. Every day they see things that are on the bad side of life. They are at a stress level that is much too high.”

Today Wils works for a private program for troubled teens that is trying to help them see success in their new homeland. He estimates that 30 to 40% of the target population has alcohol and drug problems.

According to Brenda Langezaal of the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, binge drinking is also a problem in the Netherlands. More than half of 14-year-olds say they have experimented with alcohol. Of teens who say they drank in the last month, 75% admitted to binge drinking.

“Sixteen is the legal age in the Netherlands for beer and wine,” Langezaal says. “Eighteen is the legal age for stronger liquor.”

The country has developed prevention programs in schools, targeting parents' role. Meanwhile, the private program Wils is working with is hoping the Dutch government will help with funding. “After struggling five years, having practically no money, perhaps our situation will ameliorate,” he says.

Bermuda: becoming family-focused

Alfred Maybury, director of child and family services for Bermuda's government, says the vacation paradise's heavy tourist trade might help make alcohol more accessible to young people. “We're trying to really look at it in terms of how that's impacting our young people,” he says.

Since 1991, the Bermudan government has surveyed teens every three years to determine how many are using alcohol and drugs and in what quantities. “About 40% indicate they've tried or experimented with some kind of drug,” Maybury says, “either marijuana, tobacco or alcohol. Of that 40%, we may have 25 to 30% we actually end up having to provide services for.”

Maybury says that while drug use overall appears to have declined slightly over the past five years, there also has been a drop in the average age of children trying substances. He says more 12- and 13-year-olds are now reporting use or experimentation.

Children usually don't seek treatment until around age 15, and the majority of them are boys, he says. “That's when they are transitioning from middle school,” Maybury explains. Most often referrals will come from teachers who report behavior problems or a drop in grades. Occasionally parents will seek help for their children. Even rarer, law enforcement will refer a child, he says.

The government is trying to expand its outreach, with a focus on family treatment. “We recognize that some children are picking up the use of drugs from the adults in the family,” Maybury says. “Now we're looking at the family as a system so that we don't find ourselves treating a child and having that child go back to an environment that has the problem.”

Seeking new approaches

Treatment experts in many countries are taking a closer look not only at their own programs, but also what appears to be working in other countries. Bermuda's Maybury and Australia's Swobota both recently visited the United States to learn more about wilderness therapy programs-something neither country presently offers.