Taking action to combat alcohol dependency
“A black eye”, “vomit on your shoes”, “the morning after in the casualty ward” – just some of the “rewards” promised by scratch cards distributed in Geneva on Thursday.
That was one of many different initiatives planned all over the country to mark the national action day on alcohol-related problems. The annual event is backed by a group of specialised organisations working in the area of alcohol dependency.
Other towns marked the day with information stands, lectures and street theatre performances.
There are estimated to be about 300,000 people in Switzerland with problematic drinking habits, and of these, only about three per cent seek treatment. The action day aims to raise public awareness and break the taboo about the issue.
People develop problematic alcohol consumption over a period of time, said media spokeswoman Monique Helfer of Sucht Info Schweiz, which coordinates the action day nationwide.
“For example, they go out after work with friends and regularly have a few beers, and don't always even notice that it’s become a habit and they are drinking more and more. Perhaps they do it to get rid of stress, and it can be a slow process which ends up tipping a person over into problematic consumption,” she told swissinfo.ch.
In other cases people drink to forget their worries – and this can be particularly problematical if they have no other strategy to deal with them as it can become a vicious circle.
Alcohol can develop into a problem at any age: sometimes dependency starts only after retirement. Stopping work can leave a gap in a person’s life, and then there are illness and deaths of friends and close relatives to deal with, Helfer explained.
Alcohol and violence
With so many different target groups, the national action day focuses on a different aspect each year.
This year the idea is to raise awareness about the link between alcohol consumption and violence.
“Alcohol can bring situations of conflict and stress to a head, and curb the necessary self awareness for dealing with difficult situations without the use of violence,” the organisers say in their media release.
While alcohol-fuelled crowd violence – for instance at sports events – and violence involving young people are what hits the headlines, that is not the only problem.
“We know from studies on violence that it is often found within families, or within the narrow social environment, where it doesn’t get spoken about so much,” said therapist Stefan Gaschen, who was coordinating the action day in Bern.
“It happens at all levels of society. In the last resort it’s a cry for help, but it’s not the right way to do it.”
“I know someone who…”
In Bern representatives of different local organisations stood at some of the bus stops in the town centre, handing out sticking plasters with the caption: Counselling can Help! and addresses where people can get support and information.
“I’ve had different reactions,” said Anton Fluckiger, who had already handed out a bagful of plasters in about an hour.
“Lots of people think I’m trying to sell something and say ‘no thanks’, but mostly when they see that I’m not, they are very open and happy to talk,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“So far I haven’t seen anyone who admits to having a problem themself. But some say they know someone who drinks too much, so then I tell them where they can go for help.”
Michael Kuss had found that older people were more likely to get into conversation with him.
“I think older people are more aware of the issue,” he told swissinfo.ch. “They are more likely to know someone with a problem.”
Young people who go binge drinking every week or two tend to think that that’s how things are, he explained.
“But I think as you get older, you become more aware that drinking can be problematic. And you see the long term impact on your friends. When someone has been drinking to excess for 20 years, you notice it; but with a 20 year old who’s been drinking too much for three or four years, you can’t tell by looking.”
Gaschen said that in his experience most people leave it a long time before they look for help.
“They always know someone else who has a bigger alcohol problem than they do, and that makes them feel they don’t need treatment,” he told swissinfo.ch.
And that makes it all the harder. “You can say that the longer the dependency has lasted, the longer the treatment process will take.”
When they do finally come, it is often under pressure from outside, such as their partner or their employer.
Treatment is difficult and needs commitment. Most patients will suffer relapses as they try to break their dependency, Gaschen warned.
“But as a rule, people who keep trying over a long period to get away from alcohol do succeed in the end, even if it often takes several attempts.”
Alcohol dependency in Switzerland
The website of the Federal Health Office, citing a 2003 study, puts the yearly cost of the misuse of alcohol at about SFr6.5 billion ($6.58 billion).
The direct costs account for SFr0.7 billion, production losses account for SFr1.5 billion, and loss of quality of life for drinkers and their families is put at SFr4.2 billion.
A 2006 study found that of all injuries requiring medical treatment, about 17 per cent of those in men and 12 per cent of those in women are caused in some way by alcohol.
One sixth of fatal road accidents involve alcohol.
In Switzerland about five young people (aged up to 23) are taken to hospital every day as a result of alcohol problems.
It is estimated that about 260,000 people in Switzerland aged between 15 and 75 regularly drink too much alcohol. More than half of them are also binge drinkers: consuming large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time.
About 300,000 people in Switzerland are estimated to be alcohol-dependent or in great danger from alcohol.
About two-thirds of them are men.
The Health Office has drawn up a national alcohol programme aimed at preventing problems related to alcohol consumption.
Source: Federal Health Office
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