The problems of substance abuse among Scottish teenagers are not restricted to drugs and solvents. With many turning to drink, a new Barnardo's Scotland project aims to help them stay in control, writes Judy Mackie
Surfing for news stories on alcohol and binge drinking is a sobering exercise. "Britons on top in European drinking poll", "Too many beat blues with booze", "Drink link to 5 crashes a week", "Binge-drinking culture serves up 500 per cent rise in alcohol cases": these are a few examples from 44 web pages of headlines that have appeared since March in just one Scottish newspaper.
Alcohol misuse is such an insidious element of adult culture in Scotland that it should come as no surprise that ever more young people are copying the behaviour of their elders. Yet, adults are the first to demonise children when under-age and inappropriate drinking gets them into trouble.
"Sensational newspaper headlines reflect our shock and distaste but, as adults, we all need to take responsibility for the rise in use of alcohol by young people," says Eric Watson of Barnardo's Scotland, who is responsible for delivering a pioneering alcohol and drugs advice programme for young people in Aberdeenshire.
"Research shows that many are getting their first drink in the home, and the marketing of alcopop-style drinks is very obviously targeted at young people.
"Children are getting the message from adults that drugs are bad, but that drinking alcohol is OK. We would suggest that it's not ok for young teenagers to drink. We often have to point out to parents that it is alcohol, rather than drugs, that is at the root of their child's problems."
Mr Watson and his team of four specialist project workers, based in Peterhead, Inverurie and Portlethen, are delighted that the Gemini programme launched a month ago now gives them the opportunity to tackle the issue of alcohol abuse alongside that of illicit drugs and solvents, in their work with 12- to 18-year-olds across Aberdeenshire.
One-to-one sessions are held at a location where the young person feels most comfortable and group sessions are held in schools where teachers have referred pupils who are using or at risk of using drugs, alcohol or solvents. Sessions take place twice a week for 12 weeks.
Referrals can come from young people themselves, schools, carers, parents, friends, social workers and the police (though the young people must be aware of referrals being made on their behalf).
Previous work with 12- to 16-year-olds in a four-year youth drugs initiative had revealed the extent to which alcohol misuse was responsible for problems in school, at home and in the wider community. Assessments had shown a trend for poly-drug use, with young people taking whatever substance was available at the time they wanted something.
Statistical analysis over the project revealed a steady increase in young people's use of alcohol: by the end, alcohol was found to be taken by 100 per cent of new referrals to the initiative. Other popular drugs of choice were cannabis (92 per cent), tobacco (91 per cent), solvents (40 per cent) and amphetamine (30 per cent).
As the youth drugs initiative was designed to focus on illicit drug and solvent issues, resources did not allow for specialised work on alcohol problems. But now the Gemini programme, set up by the Aberdeenshire Alcohol and Drug Action Team in conjunction with the council, Grampian Health Board and the Lloyds TSB partnership drugs initiative, has brought additional resources that will enable Barnardo's to deliver an enhanced non-judgmental support and advice service across the region and point professionals, parents and young people towards the best agency to access.
"It takes a lot of courage for a young person or a parent to make that first call and if they reach the wrong agency, they may not call anyone else for months or years, or ever again," says Mr Watson.
The new initiative hopes to build on the success of the youth drugs initiative (86 per cent of whose participants have either abstained or dramatically reduced their drug use), using worksheets and activities to help the teenagers think through and discuss the consequences of their use of substances.
Hugh Mackintosh, director of Barnardo's Scotland, explains: "At Barnardo's we believe that every young person deserves the best possible start in life. Our aim is to work alongside young people by providing support, education, advice and guidance and to help them understand that there may be underlying issues which they need to deal with.
"Many young people who have problems with drugs or alcohol may, as a result, be at risk of becoming excluded from school, involved in crime, victims of sexual exploitation and violence or suffering health problems.
Through Gemini we hope to prevent young people ending up in these types of situations and to help all those we work with become happy, confident individuals who are able to contribute to their community."
Counselling young people on alcohol issues requires a different approach to other substances, for which reduction and abstention is always advocated by project workers, because alcohol is legal within certain age and location parameters. A fine balance has to be struck between acknowledging this and pointing out the associated dangers.
"Culturally, it has become more and more acceptable for men and women to go out and get drunk and have a laugh about it.
"But we believe children are not getting the full story and need to be properly educated about the short and long-term consequences of using alcohol," Mr Watson says.
The Gemini project targets its activity-based work on alcohol at three age levels: 12-14 years, 15-16 and 17-18. For the two younger age ranges, reduction and abstention is the clear message, but this is less realistic for older teenagers, who can legally buy beer, cider and wine with a meal in restaurants. So the focus for them is on responsible drinking and staying out of trouble.
Health is a strong theme of the programme. Young people are encouraged to think in terms of units of alcohol by working with different-sized glasses.
Placing paper organs on a drawing of a body gets them thinking about the short- and long-term effects of alcohol on a person's wellbeing.
Being honest with yourself about why you drink, staying in control and being able to make decisions while drinking are also strong topics for discussion.
A powerful exercise involves trying to carry out tasks wearing special spectacles, known as "beer glasses", which simulate the dramatic effects of drunkenness on vision, balance and co-ordination.
The Gemini alcohol, drugs and solvent abuse programmes share several tried and tested approaches, such as participants drawing up lists of benefits and consequences (the youth drug initiative has shown that the list of consequences is always longer) and playing the stereotypes game in which the groupindividual decides which of eight possible alcoholdrug using characters they would choose to live with on a new planet and why.
Both programmes also focus on the young person making choices and taking control of his or her life, using the coping strategies and support networks they have created with their project worker.
Mr Watson says: "If something went wrong in the young person's life, we'd discuss why it happened and the consequences for themselves and their family, friends, school, neighbours and so on.
"We do not make judgments, but I would suggest that, as a society, it is our job to help young people find their way responsibly into adulthood and, in doing so, we must be prepared to share the blame for any wrongdoing."
Gemini Project, tel 01779 481467www.barnardos.org.ukbayi
Highlights of the 2004 Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (Salsus), reporting on smoking, drinking and drug use among 7,062 13- and 15-year-olds in 194 schools across the country, include:
* 88 per cent of 15-year-olds (90 per cent of the girls questioned; 86 per cent of the boys) and 68 per cent of 13-year-olds (boys and girls) reported ever having a proper alcoholic drink.
* Of those, 20 per cent of 13-year-olds and 43 per cent of 15-year-olds reported drinking during the week before the survey.
* Among those pupils who had ever drunk alcohol, the most commonly reported negative effect was vomiting: 50 per cent of 15-year-old girls and 42 per cent of boys that age reported vomiting at least once in the past year because of drinking alcohol. Among 13-year-olds, 31 per cent of girls and 32 per cent of boys reported vomiting.
* Shops and off-licences were the most frequently reported source of alcohol for the 15-year-olds who bought alcohol; for 13-year-olds, buying from a friend or relative or someone else was reported as frequently as shops.
* Among pupils who reported drinking in the week before the survey, 58 per cent of 15-year-old boys and 45 per cent of girls the same age were most likely to report that their families did not mind that they drank alcohol.
Among 13-year-olds, 42 per cent of boys and 35 per cent of girls said their families did not mind.
* Most of the pupils who reported that they had drunk alcohol agreed that they were always or sometimes allowed to drink at home (83 per cent of 13-year-olds and 86 per cent of 15-year-olds).