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Teens should think twice before overindulging in alcohol

Research shows that early exposure to alcohol and other related substances can be mentally and physically dangerous for teens with potentially long-term effects, writes Johan Lombaard, Hospital Manager at Life Brackenview.

The issue of teen drinking and alcohol abuse is multifaceted, especially since young people face an array of challenges including those brought about by modern living like social media, peer pressure, the accessibility and low cost of alcohol and then, in South Africa, this is exasperated by socio-economic disparities.

Worryingly, more than 50% of South African teenagers admit to having tried alcohol by the time they’re 18. From mere curiosity and societal expectations to their upbringing, predisposition toward drinking and peer pressure, there are many reasons why teens might turn to alcohol.

While we cannot always stop younger people from consuming alcohol before they’re of age, it’s important for teens to be aware of the physical and mental impact overindulgence in alcohol poses. Of major concern is the fact that teens who start drinking at an early age are at greater risk of developing alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that whilst one or two drinks may not be serious cause for alarm under some circumstances such as a safe environment it may be too much to drive a vehicle. The real danger comes when a couple of drinks are no longer enough, a few nights of partying turn into drinking alone, an uncontrollable desire for alcohol, or aggressive behaviour.

The physical impact of alcohol

The body of an adolescent is still developing. When a teen overindulges in alcohol, the body needs energy to repair itself from the toxins and dehydration – energy that would otherwise be deployed for growth.

If this overindulgence occurs regularly, over a long period of time, it can severely and irreparably damage the body – resulting in serious, long-term health conditions, like jaundice, oedema, as well as the increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and organ failure.

Globally, alcohol is the third-largest risk factor for disease, and contributes to 5% of the world’s burden of disease. Research also shows that around 3 million deaths each year are directly related to alcohol consumption.

At the time of drinking, the physical signs and symptoms of alcohol might appear mild, but increased exposure can lead to a high burden of disease, alcoholism, and even harm to other people, such as family members, friends or co-workers.

Mental impact of alcohol

As teens move from one phase of their life to the next, their minds undergo rapid transitions and growth. For some, this transitional phase may include feelings of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. This is particularly something to watch out for in teens who feel they may have underperformed in their matric results and could feel uncertain about their future prospects.

While these emotions are very common and mostly temporary, they may become a problem when an adolescent doesn’t know how to recognise or cope with them. That’s why they might then turn to mood-altering substances – like alcohol or drugs – to escape.

For some, alcohol may be a socially acceptable escape, which is why it’s readily available at liquor stores, taverns and even in homes. Even though the law prohibits the sale of alcohol to people under 18, the controls around alcohol consumption are not as strict as they should be, considering the overall impact it can have on people in the long term.

While memory loss and blackouts are the first signs of overindulgence, frequent and significant alcohol use can result in various mental health problems, including anxiety, mood disorders and anti-social behaviour.

Get help

If you, or someone you know, is battling to control their drinking or fighting alcoholism, help is available. At Life Healthcare, we provide leading private psychiatric services in South Africa. Today, we have nine dedicated facilities across Gauteng, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape.

Our specialised treatment programmes have been developed to help people struggling with substance use concurrent with mental health conditions to overcome their health challenges and embrace a healthier, happier lifestyle. We also have dedicated programmes and behavioural support specifically for adolescents, available at Life Brackenview, and Life Poortview.

Our multidisciplinary teams of psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, social workers, counsellors and nurses offer holistic treatments that meet patients’ individual needs and address the root cause of their issues.

Enjoying one drink doesn’t mean that you're on track to becoming an alcoholic. However, if you find that one drink quickly turns into a binge, then it might be time to consider seeking professional help.

Another useful way to determine if your relationship with alcohol is unhealthy, is to ask yourself if you’re actively trying to keep your drinking a secret. If it’s something you’re trying to hide, that could be a sign that it’s time to get expert advice.

It’s okay to not be okay. There is hope. There is no shame in asking for help. Let’s work together to protect our own mental and physical health, so that we can live healthier lives.