Anyone who read the recent story about a British expatriate couple who were reported to have abandoned their child in a Portuguese street while they drank in a café will have groaned. Excessive drinking – how very British. The BBC report is full of such telling details as the parents reportedly being unable to speak properly when the police tracked them down, and the couple still appearing to be drunk the following morning when they attended a police station to enquire about their daughter.
She had been taken to an emergency reception centre overnight.
The parents have denied the allegations.
As a society we devote a lot of time, effort and expense to the perennial problem of drugs: prosecuting dealers, treating addicts, seizing shipments. Of course ‘street drugs’ such as heroin and cocaine are illegal and as a result only a minority of us ever come into contact with them.
But from a pharmacological point of view, alcohol is as much a drug as heroin. It has the same properties – it alters one’s mood, it affects the central nervous system, it is addictive. But while injecting oneself with heroin is a squalid act which few people would condone, excessive drinking is legal and almost celebrated in some quarters. Those bright bottles are stacked on the shelves of every supermarket and corner shop.
The damage done to our health is by excessive drinking is a story for the doctors to tell.
But alcohol affects more than the people doing the drinking: their family, friends and co-workers are all affected too. Children are, as ever particularly vulnerable. The children of alcoholics and problem drinkers must cope with unreliable, erratic, emotional, unpredictable, neglectful parents that slowly erode – or suddenly shatter – that crucial sense of security every child needs to grow up happily and healthily.
New research carried out for the Children’s Commissioner for England makes for rather grim reading. The report, called Silent Voices, suggests that no less than one fifth of children – that’s 2.5 million of them! – live with a so-called ‘hazardous drinker’, someone who drinks to levels which could be harmful to themselves or others around them. Even worse, more than 90,000 babies live with parents who struggle with drinking problems – a combination with obvious potential for disaster.
In her foreword to the report, Commissioner Maggie Atkinson makes a telling contrast with official attitudes to illegal drugs:
“The misuse of alcohol by parents negatively affects the lives and harms the wellbeing of more children than does the misuse of illegal drugs. Yet too often, parental alcohol misuse is not taken as seriously, in spite of alcohol being addictive, easier to obtain, and legal. The effects of parents’ alcohol misuse on children may be hidden for years, whilst children try both to cope with the impact on them, and manage the consequences for their families.”
Emphasising that alcohol abuse can put “children’s safety at sustained, serious risk”, she called for a far more proactive approach:
“The impact of parental alcohol misuse is a problem which must be addressed by health professionals, those working in social care, treatment services, and others in the child’s life. It requires a coordinated, collaborative approach. It is a problem with which parents must seek help, and one we all need to address.”
The report contains heartbreaking anecdotes from children in families whose lives have been wracked by alcohol. Here is one:
“My brother, who is 10, says he wants to end it all, my mum also says she wants to die. She really needs to talk to someone but there is no-one? I am not getting any sleep. I am scared…”
We may not start fights on the High Street on a Saturday night, but even the most sedate amongst us enjoy a glass of wine with our meals and occasionally lose track of just how much of the bottle we have gotten through at a single sitting.
To quote Silent Voices: “The children speaking in this report tell us our casual attitude to the harmful potential of drinking too much must change.”
We all live in an alcohol-saturated society and this problem is closer to home than we might think.