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World No Alcohol Day - Help starts here!

30 September 2022

Deciding to get help for an alcohol addiction for yourself or a loved one can be scary, but it can be one of the best decisions of your life to start your journey to recovery and restore hope.

World No Alcohol Day is observed on 2 October this year and aims to highlight the risks of alcohol consumption. People and organisations across the world are raising awareness on alcohol addiction and celebrating the benefits of recovery. Many people do not have a problem with alcohol and consume it recreationally. Worldwide, however, 3 million deaths every year result from harmful use of alcohol, according to the World Health Organisation.

Dr Mumtaz Abbas is a specialist family physician and works at the Bishop Lavis Community Day Centre. Dr Abbas says alcohol addiction not only affects the health systems, but families in our communities. “We encounter people daily who struggle with alcoholism, and this leads to domestic violence in the home, as well as crime and loss of employment. Often the people that we encounter, who have a problem with alcohol, also have a problem with other drugs as well. Alcohol consumption also has a causal relationship with mental and behavioral problems, other non-communicable conditions and injuries which has a negative impact on our health system. It also causes death and disability, which results in significant social and economic losses to people in our community and results in more people accessing the health care system and more people requiring social assistance.”

Research by WHO indicates that alcohol consumption causes death and disability relatively early in life. In people aged 20–39 years, approximately 13.5% of total deaths are attributable to alcohol. The harmful use of alcohol can also result in harm to other people, such as family members, friends, co-workers and strangers. Alcohol addiction is serious, and symptoms should not be ignored. Dr Abbas shares some of the signs that a loved one needs support: “There are a number of signs that someone may be struggling with alcohol addiction. These signs include physical signs such as: sweating, tremors, feeling tired due to inability to sleep, hallucinations, restlessness, anxiety and seizures.”

Other warning signs may include:

  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns.
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain.
  • Deterioration of physical appearance and personal grooming habits.
  • Unusual smells on breath, body or clothing.
  • Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired co-ordination.
  • Drop in attendance and performance at work or school

Drinking alcohol is associated with a risk of developing major noncommunicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, some cancers and cardiovascular diseases. “Alcohol can cause high blood pressure increasing your risk of heart attacks and strokes. It can also cause liver disease and cancers,” says Dr Abbas.

At the same time, alcohol consumption by an expectant mother may cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and pre-term birth complications. Dr Abbas explains: “Alcohol consumption in pregnancy can cause abnormalities in the unborn baby and is most harmful in the first three months of pregnancy but can cause harm to the baby throughout pregnancy.”

Dr Abbas says safe and confidential help is available for you and your loved ones. If you or anyone you know is struggling with addition to alcohol or drugs, help starts here. You can start your journey to recovery by visiting your local clinic for support. A healthcare worker can connect you to support groups or facilities.

“There are various organisations that can be accessed online to support people who wish to recover from alcoholism. You can also approach the social worker at your local clinic who can put you in touch with an organisation or arrange for rehabilitation.” 

ALCOHOL AND YOUR MENTAL HEALTH

Your mental well-being can be affected when consuming alcohol. Stikland Hospital Psychologist Carla Damonze says as addiction develops, a patient often develops a host of mental health problems. “Because of the secrecy associated with failed attempts to control and stop their use of alcohol, as well as using it in secret to avoid conflict with others, addicts often lie to themselves and attempt to deceive others about the true extent of their addiction. The secrecy brings about a deep sense of shame, a painful emotion which is often intolerable, and perpetuates the cycle of addiction. Furthermore, denial and different forms of denial of the illness also maintains addiction. This may lead to depression, which is worsened by the depressant properties of alcohol.”

Carla says those suffering from an alcohol use disorder will feel the effects of the progression of the illness in several areas of life. “The health issues range from neglect of basic self- care, such as bathing, brushing teeth, to more serious illnesses, including jaundice, Korsakoff Syndrome and dementia (forgetfulness, memory loss etc.).”

Other psychological warning signs may include:

  • Unexplained change in personality or attitude.
  • Sudden mood swings, irritability or angry outbursts.
  • Periods of unusual hyperactivity, agitation or giddiness.

Education and empathy are key on the journey to recovery. “As a patient, you will need to understand and differentiate between using substances to cope versus using substances because the body has become dependent on it. Often, patients interpret their using as a coping mechanism to deal with challenges and have not realised that the build-up of tolerance, withdrawal and craving speaks to a separate and new problem, which is the addiction. However, these emotions are often intertwined with psychological difficulties associated with negative self-beliefs and cognitions, and thus the addiction is misinterpreted as, for example, coping with depression. Help is available to support you through this journey,” says Carla.

Because of the dependent properties of alcohol, it is likely that when it is consumed regularly or daily, the body is likely to develop tolerance and dependence. “Therefore, ongoing use predisposes one to addiction and other mental health problems that arise out of the consequences of out-of-control using (family conflict, work problems etc.).” 

ACCESSING CARE

Members of the public can access help through their local clinic. Western Cape Department of Health clinics offer mental health support at no cost. If you or your loved ones need help, visit your nearest clinic to speak to a mental health nurse. Remember, a healthcare worker can refer you for further care.

Carla explains: “Most clinics have a mental health nurse who is able to direct the client to rehabilitation clinics or NGOs in the area (in-patient or out-patient). Those patients who have access to medical aid can be assessed at any of the numerous private clinics for admission and treatment (often three weeks, in-patient). It is important for clients to access aftercare support services, and they can do so by joining AA meetings and request a sponsor to support them in recovery.”

Registered community-based facilities are safe and have trained experts to support you and your loved ones. Your treatment will involve regular sessions to help overcome addiction. For more information about addiction and a list of registered, government-funded treatment facilities, visit www.heretohelp.gov.za