A number of years ago after a Year 12 presentation at a girls’ school I was approached by a young woman (let’s call her Faith) who wanted to talk to me about concerns she had about her alcohol use. I made it clear to her about my ‘duty of care’ and that if what she told me led me to believe she was ‘at risk’, I would have to report it to the school. It was obvious that something in the talk had struck a nerve and she needed to speak to someone and damn the consequences. Faith was 16 and for the past two years she had been drinking at least one bottle of vodka every Saturday evening, either at a party with friends or, on rare occasions, by herself. She had no desire to drink alcohol at any other time, just that one night each week, but when she did drink her intention was to get ‘smashed’. From what I could gather, she had chosen this time to discuss her concerns because she was starting to find that it took far more alcohol to get her to the point she was after. When I asked her why she was drinking in this way, her answer was so sad and went something like this:
“My parents pay so much money to send me to this school. I know they sacrifice so much and I want to do well, not only for myself but for them. I work really hard all week and with my final exams coming up and all my other commitments there is so much pressure. Saturday night is the one time of the week when I don’t have to think about all of that stuff and drinking helps me forget, just for a few hours, all the other things that are going on in my life. When I started drinking in Year 9, I’d have a couple of drinks to fit in with the other girls, but now I have to drink so much more to get the effect I want. I get wasted so that I don’t have to think about anything.”
Of course, I had no choice – this was certainly a duty of care issue and I told her that we would need to go and see someone at the school so she could talk this through with a school counsellor at the very least. She had no objection and was obviously ready to get professional help. The most bizarre part of this story was that, later that day, when I spoke to the principal about the incident she told me that Faith had just been voted School Captain for the coming year. She was also one of their high-achievers and likely to be the dux of her year. There were no signs of any issues with this student and she was staggered that her dangerous pattern of drinking had gone unnoticed for so long.
It was obvious that Faith was not drinking to have a ‘good time’, she was drinking to get ‘wasted’ and forget what was going on in her life. This is, of course, problematic drinking and she really needed assistance in finding other healthier ways of dealing with the stresses in her life.
Some people believe that if one drink makes you feel good, 10 will make you feel amazing. It’s the same when it comes to other drugs, particularly ecstasy/MDMA – for some users, the more you take, the more ‘out of it’ you will become, the better your night. What concerns me, however, is the growing number of teens I am speaking to who, like Faith, seem to want to get so ‘out of it’ in an attempt to block out the world around them. When I hear about 16 and 17-year-old young men who are taking 2 or 3 MDMA caps to start off the night, usually with alcohol, and then downing another three or four as the evening progresses, it terrifies me. Talk to their concerned friends and they will tell you that these guys are in such a state that they often find it difficult to walk or talk. This is not about a ‘good time’, it’s about getting ‘mindless’. It’s not about enhancing their night, it’s about escaping from it.
It’s important to acknowledge that ‘getting wasted’ is not a new phenomenon. There have always been those who want to ‘push it’ as far as they can, whether it be with alcohol or other substances, and others have certainly used a range of substances in this way to ‘escape’. The Urban Dictionary lists a whole pile of words that describe this, including (excuse the language) “hammered, sloshed, shit-faced, tanked, blitzed, bombed, wrecked, three sheets to the wind, trashed, jagged up, canned, smashed, fucked-up, annihilated.” Many of these were around when I was younger and they’re likely to be around for a long time yet. The problem is that we are seeing a growing number of substances being able to be accessed by young people to enable them to get to that state, many of which they regard as ‘harmless’. Pushing boundaries is part of adolescence but with growing concern about the mental health of our young people, this ‘getting wasted’ culture is concerning.
The number of schools I have gone to over the past year that have had a student take their own life is frightening. As a society we have to ask ourselves why are there growing numbers of young people that believe suicide is their only option? What social pressures now exist that lead them down that path? In addition, what is happening that make so many other teens want to drink or take other drugs to such a point that they are totally smashed and are unable to walk or talk?
Our kids live in a very different world to the one we grew up in. Some of the changes teens of today have to live with include increasing expectations and pressure to achieve than in the past; rising above the media’s mostly negative portrayal of young people and their behaviour; navigating through the never-ending scrutiny via social media; and coping with a 24-hour news cycle that constantly reminds them of an uncertain future. Don’t get me wrong, I think they do an amazing job for the most part and, as I’ve said before, most don’t survive, they thrive. That said, there are others who struggle and we can’t let young women like Faith slip through the cracks. Some are feeling the pressure and ‘getting wasted’ is not the answer.