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Looking after a drunk person: How can we ensure the person providing the care is safe?

At some point during their teens most young people, regardless of whether they drink themselves or not, will have to look after a drunk friend, family member or someone they have come across at a party or gathering. It is therefore incredibly important to make sure we arm them with good quality information about alcohol and its effects, as well as providing them with practical strategies that will enable them to do this effectively. Making sure the drunk person is safe – i.e., that they don’t lose consciousness or choke on their own vomit – is incredibly important but it is also just important to make sure that the person providing the care is also safe.

Looking after a drunk person, whether they are a friend or not, is potentially risky. Drunk people can be unpredictable and, of course, aggressive behaviour is a very real risk. So many things can go wrong and over the years I have seen some shocking injuries inflicted by drunk people on friends. Some of these include the following:

  •  a 15-year-old girl permanently scarred when a drunk friend’s ring caught her eyelid as she was trying to put her into a safe position
  •  a number of both young men and women who have had their earrings or nose-rings yanked out, tearing their lobe or nostril, while trying to look after an intoxicated mate. In almost all of these cases, the drunk friend was not violent or overly aggressive, it was simply a sudden arm or hand movement attempting to push their friend away that resulted in the injury
  • a 17-year-old young man who was pushed away by his best friend who was trying to help him, causing him to fall backwards and hit his head, resulting in a brain-related injury
As I say to young people in my presentations, of course it is important to look after your drunk friend and try to keep them safe but knowing when it is time to hand that person over to someone else, or at least get other people to help you is vital. If a drunk person starts to fight you in any way (and that does not necessarily mean clenching their fists and trying to punch you – simply resisting you or ‘swatting’ you away can be potentially dangerous), you need to get someone else to assist you to deal with the situation. 
It is also important to acknowledge that the majority of injuries I have seen have not been inflicted by young men. Talk to teens and they will tell you that they are likely to be more cautious looking after drunk males, particularly those who are a little larger. That’s not a bad thing to keep at the back of your mind. One careless arm movement, particularly by those bigger blokes affected by alcohol (although a smaller one can do just as much damage), could cause a great deal of damage to someone attempting to look after them – at the very least a black eye or a bloody nose, at worse, potential brain damage (as in the case above) or even death. Where most of the really horrific injuries have come from, however, is the jewellery worn by young women, particularly rings (although bracelets can also be problematic). As well as possibly causing cuts and scratches across the face of the person looking after their drunk friend, these items can also can cause potentially devastating injuries to their eyes or get caught in facial jewellery (as discussed above). Fingernails can also cause injuries, admittedly these are more likely to be quite superficial (i.e., cuts and scratches), but nevertheless, they need to be considered.
Recently I have added a new section to my presentation around looking after a drunk friend, this time discussing the potential risks young men face when attempting to assist an intoxicated young woman. Over the last 18 months I have had contact with three families all going through a very similar experience. All of them have asked me not to use their particular case in a blog entry, however, they all agreed to allow me to ‘merge’ their three stories into one (using elements of each to create one case study), thus maintaining their anonymity. 

James was 18 and attending one of the final parties being held for his Year 12 cohort. He was the designated driver and had not been drinking. The three friends he had arrived with wanted to stay a little longer but James had had enough and decided to go home. Just before leaving the party he walked upstairs to use the bathroom. When he opened the door he found one of his female classmates lying on the floor incredibly drunk. She was conscious but only just … She had vomited over herself and was crying. James knew the girl was in his class but didn’t know her or her friends particularly well. He walked in and set about looking after her. After about 30 minutes he helped the girl out of the bathroom and took her downstairs to her friends. He then left the party, drove home and went to bed. He was woken up by his mother and told that there were police at the door. They were there to arrest him for sexual assault. 
Her friends had taken the young woman home and shortly afterwards her parents took her to the police. According to the police report, the girl claimed that while she had been drunk James had taken advantage of the situation and she had been sexually assaulted. 

Now the only people who know what actually happened that night are the two people who were in that bathroom. I know the incident has totally destroyed two families and will in all likelihood continue to cause damage for some time to come. I need to make it clear that I have not met the young woman or her family. I have, however, had a number of discussions with James and his parents. I believe that the only good thing that can ever come from this story is to use it to highlight some important messages to other young men about how to look after drunk girls and keep themselves safe while they do so … I now tell James’ story in my presentation to Year 10s and highlight two big mistakes he made in the handling of this situation. Put simply, young men need to be aware of the following messages that may help prevent them from finding themselves in a similar dilemma:

  • never be alone with a drunk girl – ever! Does that mean that James shouldn’t have looked after the girl in the bathroom? Should he have just simply walked away and left her there? Of course not! His first mistake was that he didn’t get help from others immediately. As soon as he realized the girl was in trouble he should have yelled, screamed or got onto his phone and called for someone to come upstairs and help him look after her … There was a party going on downstairs, there were so many people there – one other person being present is all that was needed. It doesn’t matter whether you know the young woman or not, being alone with someone who is drunk and vulnerable, puts you in an extremely compromising position. 
  • make sure you can be seen by others at all times … In this case, James shut the bathroom door. He insists that he did so to protect the young woman’s reputation. She was a mess and according to his version of the story, he did not want other people to see her in the state she was in … Now whether or not that is true, it is a dangerous thing to do. Always make sure you are potentially visible to others – never shut doors or take intoxicated people to dark parts of the garden. I get that friends want to shield their mates from ‘prying eyes’ (and in these days of cameras being everywhere it is not surprising that the first thing that crosses most young peoples’ minds when they come across a drunk friend is to get them away from others who may take a photo and post it online) but when you’re not able to be found because you have closed a door or taken them somewhere that is difficult to access, it is not surprising that questions are asked about your motives …
Of course, both of these messages are also applicable to young women, although the reasons for never being alone with a drunk guy or maintaining some degree of visibility are very different. As with other violent crimes, research shows that around half of all sexual assaults are committed by men who have drank alcohol. No matter how incapacitated the drunk young man is they can still hurt a girl trying to look after them, whether that be via sexual assault or in some other way. 
When you talk to young people about how to look after drunk friends their response is amazing. They sit on the edge of their seats and soak up every piece of information and practical strategy you can give them. They are desperate for knowledge in this area. As already said, even if they don’t drink alcohol themselves, almost every teen will have to look after a drunk friend at some point during their adolescence. What staggers me is that we continue to see parents who send their 15-year-old son or daughter out on a Saturday night (some with a 4 or 6 pack of alcohol in hand) who have never had a discussion about what to do if something goes wrong … They’re going out to parties and gatherings that are potentially very dangerous events, particularly when alcohol is thrown into the mix, even a little bit of safety information from a parent can be invaluable. 
Schools can only do so much, parents have to play their part in keeping their child safe … Don’t be frightened to use your own experiences as a teen to highlight potential risks. Having a discussion about looking after a vomiting friend, when to call an ambulance and expressing your support of doing so should they believe it is appropriate, is so important. At the same time, highlighting the potential dangers associated with looking after a drunk friend is vital. We don’t want them so frightened of the things that could go wrong that they simply abandon drunk friends and leave them to their own devices. The key message here is knowing when it is time to hand that person over to others (preferably sober adults) and never try to do this by yourself (no matter how honourable your motives may be) … It’s not going to be an easy discussion but it’s an important one …

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