The story of Nicole Emily Bicknell’s death after consuming an enormous amount of alcohol at her 18th birthday party in 2014 raised a whole pile of issues around young people, alcohol and celebrating. The inquest into her death was held earlier this year but it was only last week that WA’s Deputy State Coroner handed down her verdict of “death by misadventure”. The night in question is described in graphic detail in this article from The West Australian newspaper and is deeply disturbing and, although it was found that alcohol intoxication alone caused the death, it is obvious that if those around her on the night had responded in a different way, the outcome could have been different. Nevertheless, the Coroner’s recommendation was that, as a result of the death, alcohol education be provided to every secondary school student in the state (something that I’m pretty sure is already done, at least to some extent), particularly around the physiology of alcohol toxicity.
I posted the story on my Facebook page and, not surprisingly, it received quite a reaction … It has been shared more than 100 times and has had almost 20,000 views! Many people have also posted comments. If you look at some of these, many parents obviously took the time to direct the story to their teens. One mother even used the story to congratulate her daughter on ‘doing the right thing’, potentially averting a similar situation:
- “even though she wasn’t as intoxicated as this young woman, you did the right thing at the party by keeping that girl moving and calling the ambulance”
The one comment that I found particularly interesting, however, was the following (not surprisingly from a teacher):
- “Why is it always left up to schools? There are already programs running. I sat with my daughter and watched a very graphic film made in WA about binge drinking that she had to analyse for homework. As a teacher I think parents need to also educate their own children. The party was not held at school!! Very sad for all concerned”
Of course, schools play an extremely important role in educating young people around alcohol and other drugs, but shouldn’t parents play a part in keeping their teens safe? As the woman said – “The party was not held at school!!” … Schools can provide all the information in the world to teens about the dangers of alcohol but there has to come a point where parents have to take some responsibility, particularly if they know they’re sending their teen off to a potentially risky environment like a teenage party … This is not just about simply warning them of the potential dangers, it’s about giving them practical advice and strategies on how to look after their friends and themselves should something go wrong …
I’ve presented to students from 10 schools in the past fortnight, speaking to Year 10s, 11s and 12s. When I see Year 10s (average age – 15 years), along with other messages, I show them how to look after a drunk friend and what to do in an emergency. At every one of those sessions there was a sizeable number of young men and women who had had to already deal with a drunk friend, some of them doing this multiple times. Rarely, if ever, was an adult present when this was happening. Many of them had also had to look after a drunk vomiting friend at some point. With few exceptions, most had absolutely no idea what they were doing. These are not situations that any 15-year-old should have to deal with by themselves but so many do, weekend after weekend, right across the country … When you ask them what they do in these situations, the response is often terrifying … As with Nicole’s death, many of these young people simply put their friends to bed ‘to sleep it off’, some of them hiding their intoxicated friends from parents, frightened of possible repercussions. It truly is a miracle that we don’t see more fatalities than we do.
What continues to frustrate me is that those parents who make the decision to provide alcohol to their teens to drink at a party or a gathering on a Saturday night simply hand over the bottles, drop them off at someone’s house and don’t even consider providing them with one skerrick of safety information should something go wrong … Now I know some parents will say that this is the school’s responsibility and that doesn’t this get taught in health education classes? Maybe it does, but if you’re handing over a couple of bottles or cans to your teen, wouldn’t sharing some good quality information on what they should do if something went wrong be advisable when you do?
When I first started delivering the type of presentations I do now, I based them on interviews I conducted with hundreds of young people across the country. I wanted to find out what information they wanted, not what I thought they needed and I didn’t want to rehash things that were already covered in health and drug education lessons. Overwhelmingly, what they wanted was advice on how to look after their friends. When pushed on whether they were interested in being provided information to help themselves, not surprisingly, it became quite clear that they really didn’t believe any of these ‘bad things’ would happen to them. Talking about what would happen to their friends was the key. So what is it that they really want to know? Without a doubt, the three questions that teens want answers to are as follows:
- How do I look after a drunk friend?
- How do you know when you have to call an ambulance for a drunk friend?
- How to look after a drunk, vomiting friend
When I speak to students, I do my best to provide answers, as well as simple strategies that could help them in potentially dangerous situations (I have linked some of my answers from my blog for young people, as well as a fact sheet from my website, if you are interested). Most schools attempt to provide similar messages. But wouldn’t it be great if parents took some responsibility for providing this information to their teens, particularly if they’re actually giving them the alcohol to drink at a teenage party or gathering? When you ask a 15-year-old girl how she knew what to do after she has just told you that she has recently spent 4-5 hours looking after a drunk, vomiting friend (and you have to ask where were her parents or any other adult?) and she says her ‘maternal instincts’ kicked-in – it’s deeply disturbing. The young woman had absolutely no idea what she was doing, never contemplated calling an adult to help her and instead, just hoped that her ‘instincts’ would get her and her friend through … A simple 5-minute discussion from a parent about how to look after someone who is vomiting could save a life – that’s all it could take!
Then there are all the questions about calling 000 and how much the ambulance costs, who will pay and will the ambulance or hospital call parents? I’ve already provided this information before but here’s some simple advice on how to best deal with the topic and some of the key points to cover:
- Download the ‘Emergency +’ app from the App Store and acquaint yourself with its key features. This is a fantastic tool that everyone who owns a smartphone should have – when opened it provides all the key emergency numbers, as well as activating your GPS, providing not only your latitude and longitude but also your street address
- If your child has a smartphone, sit down as a family and ensure that everyone puts the app onto their phone – this provides a great opportunity to talk about 000 and its services and when everyone does it, it helps to emphasise the importance of the service. If they don’t own a smartphone, make sure they see all family members are loading it onto their phone
- If they have a mobile – make sure 000 is listed in their address book under ‘Emergency’. Once again, talk about 000 and its services
- Ensure that they know that 000 can be accessed even if the phone does not have any credit or the phone is locked, i.e., you can pick up anyone’s mobile and call 000 even if it locked. Show them that when the keypad is locked the option for ’emergency call’ is always there
- Talk through what will happen when they call regarding a medical emergency (read through the DARTA fact sheet on the topic for full details) but the most important points include who they will be talking to (an emergency operator and then the ambulance operator – many teens are completely unaware that they will be talking to two people) and what information they will be asked for (location, mobile number and what is the problem)
- Make sure they know that it is not them (or you) that pays for an ambulance if they make the call – it is the person being transported! A real barrier to teens calling for help for a friend is that they are frightened there will received a bill for the ambulance
- If you have ambulance cover, make sure they know that – if you live in Queensland or Tasmania they should be told that their ambulance costs are covered
- Most importantly, ensure that they know that they have your complete support should they ever have to call an ambulance. I would suggest the following – “If you need an ambulance, you call one straight away. I totally support you. Then you call me – straight afterwards”