Cheap liquor blamed for binge drinking spike

Binge drinking among young people appears to be on the rise, and regulation and education could put a stop to it, clinician Moana Solomona has said.

The former court-based alcohol and drug clinician said she spent five years observing the rate of young people facing a judge over booze or drug-induced crimes and said something has to change to reverse the trend.

Today, Ms. Solomona is a Clinical Therapist for the Coral Reef Academy and works with the Mental Health Unit voluntarily. 

Between 2015 and 2019 she was the Alcohol and Drug Clinician with the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration where she saw more than her fair share of troubled young people running up against the law.

Often, alcohol and drugs are what landed them before the courts, but underlying issues got them there, she said.

“With the lowering of the cost of alcohol and the new lollipop type drinks and ten tala vodkas, a lot of them get into these cheap drinks. 

“In the domestic violence courts, a lot of the issues with that were around financial pressures. In the family unit, when you live with your in-laws it is typical Samoan and they know how to survive in that setting but it can create problems when you are not the decision-maker in your family.

“The pressures of our fa’alavelave, stresses of work, these are all typical contributing factors to the heavy drinking.”

Ms. Solomona said it can be hard for Samoans to realise that they might need help because as a culture people are used to getting on with their lives, and won’t think they are in much trouble until it’s too late.

By the time a person requires treatment from the Mental Health Unit in the National Hospital, it is often the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.

“It’s because our people are so resilient, they won’t seek help until they are at that depressed stage, the end of the spectrum, and usually it’s because they have become sick and their family is concerned or worried about the way they are behaving,” Ms. Solomona said.

An extra complication is that formal training on mental illness doesn’t take all of Samoa’s cultural complexities into account.

A Samoan person experiencing anxiety or depression may not present the same signs and symptoms or say the same things as someone in another context.

“You don’t see it in their presentation, they just work, and will either drink or do something to release the pressures, or use the church.

“Unlike here in the Coral Reef Academy, these American boys are like professional clients who have seen clinicians most of their lives. 

“They recognise when they are feeling depressed and actions and they present with those symptoms.”

Ms. Solomona said her “saving grace” when she came to work in Samoa was that she understands how her own people are and could adjust her practice to treat and assess patients properly.

A World Health Organisation tool for assessing levels of alcoholism is a set of ten questions that ask how much, how often, and to what extent a person drinks. 

But it takes closer to 30 questions to get an accurate sense of a person in Samoa, Ms. Solomona said.

The therapy offered as part of the court-ordered alcohol and drug programmes have helped significantly, she added, and with the Salvation Army’s addiction services programme more people can be directed out of the justice system and into social services instead.

The clinician said when she would run group therapy sessions for the groups of men court-ordered to participate, they would have a “holy s..t” moment when they see their own stories in those of their peers.

“They get a shock, and they do have that moment where they think ‘maybe I need to look at my drinking’ or whatever substance they are using.”

Many people she worked with during her time in the courts were not acutely aware of the damage excessive alcohol consumption could do to their minds, bodies, or family lives.

This could be fixed with more education programming inside schools, Ms. Solomona suggested. A ban on cheap, easy-to-drink and strong products would help, but changing mindsets would go a long way too, she added.

“It’s hard in Samoa because they (young people) can get alcohol anywhere, [and] they seem to be starting younger.

“I do think there needs to be more education around responsible drinking, safe drinking, the laws around it all,” she said.

People she met did not know the legal drinking limit before it is no safe or legal to drive, or what the consequences are for getting caught drink driving. 

This Saturday is International Mental Health Day, and Samoa has taken the entire week to celebrate the occasion under the theme Be Kind.

Ms. Solomona said she hopes people will pay attention to their loved ones, and take time to talk to them about their problems.

“I think when we say be kind it’s about going past ‘are you okay’ to asking ‘do you want to go and have lunch and talk about something’,” she said.

“I think people don’t want to be seen to be not coping.”

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