16 Mar Risk and Alcohol
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Many of the requests coming through YLS are from young men who need legal assistance or advice on situations where alcohol has been a contributing factor in what has occurred.
While young people are generally delaying the age at which they start drinking, alcohol continues to have a legal and health impact the lives of many young adults in Western Australia. The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, snapshot survey for 2019 shows Western Australia of all Australian jurisdictions having the highest percentage of alcohol-related Emergency Department presentations, with more than one in five (22%) admissions being related to alcohol. While not all these admissions relate to young adults, we know from other statistics a high percentage do.
Given the contribution of alcohol in many of the legal cases dealt with by YLS and the on-going health impact of alcohol, there seems a disconnect between the public health messaging around alcohol and the actual lived experiences of young people, particularly men. One of the reasons for this disconnect could be that public health messaging often targets the individual and their alcohol consumption whereas young men tend to drink in groups that have its own “group attitude” towards alcohol.
There are a number of beliefs that lie behind young men’s attitude towards group drinking. It is seen as a symbol of mateship and social solidarity. A study by Monash University and VicHealth into men’s risky drinking cultures confirmed this and found alcohol was perceived as facilitating bonding and connection with other men Within the social bonding that occurs risk takes on a different function than it normally would. Within the context of drinking with one’s mates, engaging in risky behaviour, including heavy drinking is seen as elevating your standing within the group. If you can “hold your alcohol” you are perceived as more virile, more of a man than the person who is known as the “Cadbury kid” or the glass and a half man. There is also an ambivalence to risk. On the one hand, many men and young men will deny risk while at the same time as engaging in high-risk behaviours.
Risk taking behaviours are particularly problematic for young men. Their inability to safely calculate and negotiate risk is demonstrated in the levels of accidents and injuries for this cohort of men.
If we are going to reduce the legal and health impact of alcohol on young people we have to think, not just of messages for the individual, but also messages that address the group beliefs and attitudes young people have around their drinking.
However, it isn’t just having new or different public health messages, in many ways that is the easy part. The majority of young men imbibe their view and attitudes towards alcohol from observing the older men around them. As older men, we need to demonstrate how to create and develop strong friendships and social bonds with other men without the lubricant of alcohol.
It is possible to form deep connections and supportive friendships with men without the use of alcohol, but for many of us this is a risk we are not prepared to take. It is easier to take a physical risk that puts us in danger than to risk sharing what we are feeling or thinking with another man. We fear, if we are emotionally honest, we will be perceived as weak, or worse that somehow our emotional honesty will make us less than other men around us. At least if we are drinking when we are honest, we can hide behind the excuse, “it’s just the alcohol talking”.
Yet our sons, and young men around us need to see us take the risk and have the courage and honesty to be emotionally honest and intelligent without alcohol.
 Michael Savic, Robin Room, Janette Mugavin, Amy Pennay & Michael Livingston (2016) Defining “Drinking Culture”: A critical review of its meaning and connoation in social research on alcohol problems, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 23:4, 270-282.
 Roberts,S., Ralph, B., Elliott, K., Robards, B., Savic, M., Lindsay, J., O’Brien, K., and Lubman, D.I. Exploring men’s risky drinking cultures (for VicHealth). Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, Melbourne, Australia.