31 October 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Medical and social problems stemming from alcohol abuse have scourged this country for decades, and their alleviation has been the subject of much public discussion and a series of varyingly successful initiatives by healthcare agencies and interests.

Particular concern has manifested in the last number of years about the prevalence of immoderate drinking habits among young people.

We have been shaken out of some of our customary ambivalence about the role drink plays in Irish society by the extent of this particular dimension of the problem, illustrated by the increasing numbers of the young, some still in the childhood category, coming to the attention of medical or law enforcement professionals with the symptoms and habits of alcoholism.

How to address and begin to reverse the abuse of alcohol by young people has long seemed especially problematic – but an admirable new initiative launched in Clones last week appears to have identified methods with considerable potential for success in this regard.

Clones Joint Policing Committee’s ‘Mind Your Body’ awareness campaign on the dangers of alcohol appears to have overcome one of the traditional obstacles to communicating with the young on this subject by talking with local youth about the problem, and taking a lead from their views, rather than talking at them about it.

Many insightful viewpoints have emerged from the participation in the project by the Clones Erne East Shadow Youth Partnership and the students of Largy College that have instructively informed both the methods and emphasis of the campaign.

It is both interesting, and to some degree encouraging, for example, to note that about a third of the students anonymously surveyed stated that they did not drink.

While a 69% declaration by a survey group still of school-attending age that they have indulged in alcohol is provocative of alarm, a view of these findings in the round suggests that an alcohol culture is by no means an overwhelmingly dominant one in this particular peer group.

If this is a finding that can be extrapolated out accurately into the social circle of young people in Clones and other towns in the county generally, it conveys a more balanced view of the problem than some of the broader-based surveys that have been conducted into this area would tend to suggest.

Those surveyed who did drink cited the customary motivations – the understandable instinct towards experimentation and the equally understandable desire to “fit in” and find a comfortable niche in a peer group are woven into the maturation process, and do not of themselves disclose an acquaintance with alcohol that might be anything more than passing.

One wonders what the responses would be if such a survey were conducted among an equivalently sized group of young people in our county who had acknowledged or identified problems with alcohol.
While the particular reasons for their excessive drinking would be manifold, in the main people – regardless of their age – who drink damagingly do so not out of fecklessness or deficiencies of character but at the spur of some significant underlying unhappiness in their lives and, perhaps more crucially, because of the difficulties they experience in naming and articulating that unhappiness sufficiently to start the process of addressing it.

We tend to think of the modern generation of young people as being much more confident and assertive than the generations that preceded them, well able to speak up for themselves and have their say.
This is true, but childhood and adolescence can still be lonely terrain for those struggling with problems that carry the perception of isolation from understanding by their friends or those in parental or authority roles.

The underlying cause of young people abusing alcohol is what ultimately must be addressed – and finding ways to identify the engine driving the problem is key to fixing it.

The current Clones campaign suggests one possible avenue towards aid in this regard in its dexterous use of the social media to convey the messages it seeks to get across.

Although a cursory inspection of it would suggest otherwise, not all of what is communicated through social networking sites and forums has to be trivial or inane.

There is scope in this universe of interaction into which young people now habitually escape for a much more structured development of secure forums and sites where problems that might be leading to alcohol misuse can be shared and discussed with others experiencing them – a virtual extension of the group therapy and talking therapy techniques that bring sustaining comfort to many through AA meetings and other similar self-help organisations.

The current Clones project hints at the potential to develop meaningful online outlets of assistance and help for alcohol-related problems that young people themselves could make the running with, given the proper guidance and assistance from the relevant statutory agencies.

This commendable initiative also illustrates the value of the Joint Policing Committee structure as a driver for inclusive social projects than can deliver, with the proper community “buy-in”, considerable community benefits.

The very successful “Don’t Pour Your Dreams Away” initiative which the Monaghan Town Joint Policing Committee were to the forefront in developing, and which has had an evident impact on lessening instances of alcohol abuse among young people around the time of the announcement of the Junior Certificate examination results, is another important example in this regard.

At a time when the JPC structure is likely to be curtailed in its extent due to the abolition of Town Councils in next year’s local government reforms, the value of these projects should not be overlooked.

Although these committees have not been auspiciously successful in some of their attempts to engage directly with the public, they have undoubtedly been effective in focusing attention on areas of local community concern and identifying means by which they can be addressed.

The degree of success they have been able to achieve despite sparse resources, and the potential for future utility they undoubtedly possess, surely argue for some meaningful JPC presence to be preserved in the towns of our county, even if the role of the structure has to undergo some reconfiguration.

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